The Sympathizer, review: Vietnam war spy series is the most fun Robert Downey Jr has been in a decade

There’s a galaxy-brained clip from Park Chan-wook’s 2013 gothic melodrama Stoker that goes viral on Twitter every few months. It’s a close-up shot of a woman’s hair being combed, the strands seamlessly transforming into a bird’s eye view of a dense woodland. In The Sympathizer, the new seven-part miniseries created by Park and Canadian writer Don McKellar, there are maybe a half-dozen transitions of comparable strangeness and ingenuity within the first few episodes. Shots that make you sit forward and think, just what am I watching? To be clear, that’s a good thing.

Adapted from the Pulitzer-winning novel of the same name by Vietnamese-American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer is set in the aftermath of the US war in Vietnam. At its centre is The Captain (Hoa Xuande), an official within the American-backed police force, who is secretly feeding information to the communist Viet Cong. After Saigon falls, he flees to the US as a refugee, where he continues his serpentine double life under the nose of the paranoid General (Toan Le). With echoes of the German spy thriller Deutschland 83, this is a story of internal contradiction, of cultural identities at war with themselves.

Much of the dialogue is Vietnamese, and so are much of the cast. But stealing the headlines – if not quite the scenes – is Robert Downey Jr, who plays four separate roles. The Peter Sellersian gimmick casts the Iron Man star as a twisted CIA handler, a culturally appropriative college professor, a sandpapery congressman and a maverick Francis Ford Coppola-esque filmmaker. This lattermost character, introduced three episodes in, gets involved when he starts making a film about the Vietnam war (a la Coppola’s Apocalypse Now), and, for the Captain, fact starts blurring with fiction.

It is perhaps a meagre compliment to say this is some of Downey’s best work in years. Freshly returned from Marvel’s creative Siberia, Downey rediscovered critical favour last year with his starchy, Oscar-winning turn in Oppenheimer; his performance here is much looser, and quite fun to behold – even if it’s several shades broader than anyone else on screen with him. (His camp, orientalist academic is a particularly indulgent creation.) Xuande is solid and intriguing in the lead role, but the standout is Sandra Oh, who gives a fascinating and layered performance as Sofia Mori, a Japanese-American secretary caught in a love affair with the Captain.

Between Downey’s character-juggling, the constantly time-skipping narrative structure, and a snappy, hair gel-slick aesthetic sensibility, it would be easy to write off The Sympathizer as being more style than substance. But make no mistake, this is a series that is really about something, that tackles expansive subject matter with clarity and verve. At a time when market oversaturation has turned starry TV miniseries into grey and missable propositions, The Sympathizer justifies its existence emphatically.

All episodes of ‘The Sympathizer’ will be available on Sky and streaming service NOW from 27 May