'The Sympathizer' confronts Hollywood's depiction of the Vietnam War : Consider This from NPR Hollywood depictions have long helped inform America's understanding of the Vietnam War.

But there was usually one thing missing from these Vietnam War stories: the Vietnamese perspective.

For Vietnamese Americans, like author Viet Thanh Nguyen, that experience left him feeling confused as a child.

In his Pulitzer-winning debut novel The Sympathizer, Nguyen filled that gap by telling the story of a Vietnamese double agent who struggled with his involvement in all parts of the conflict.

And with the release of a new HBO series adapting the story, one question arises: Can The Sympathizer subvert the long-standing narrative on the Vietnam war in Hollywood?

For sponsor-free episodes of Consider This, sign up for Consider This+ via Apple Podcasts or at plus.npr.org.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

This new show gives a little heard perspective on the Vietnam War

This new show gives a little heard perspective on the Vietnam War

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1198912328/1252259257" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Robert Downey Jr. (left) and Hoa Xuande (right) in the HBO adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer. Beth Dubber/HBO hide caption

toggle caption
Beth Dubber/HBO

Robert Downey Jr. (left) and Hoa Xuande (right) in the HBO adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer.

Beth Dubber/HBO

Hollywood depictions have long helped inform America's understanding of the Vietnam War, whether it's portraying the traumatized war veterans from The Deer Hunter playing out ugly jungle warfare in Platoon or documenting Captain Willard's journey upriver to face Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

But there was usually one thing missing from these Vietnam War stories: the Vietnamese perspective.

For Vietnamese Americans, like author Viet Thanh Nguyen, the experience of seeing war movies like Apocalypse Now as a child led to him feeling confused about his own heritage, sharing in an interview with Fresh Air:

"I didn't know who I was supposed to identify with — the Americans who were doing the killing, or the Vietnamese who were dying and not being able to speak?" Nguyen said.

"And that moment has never left me as the symbolic moment of my understanding that this was our place in an American war, that the Vietnam War was an American war from the American perspective and that, eventually, I would have to do something about that."


You're reading the Consider This newsletter, which unpacks one major news story each day. Subscribe here to get it delivered to your inbox, and listen to more from the Consider This podcast.


Telling a different story

Nguyen did do something about it — his 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel was The Sympathizer, and centered on a Vietnamese double agent embedded in a South Vietnamese community in the U.S. while spying for the communist north.

But a novel, even a Pulitzer Prize-winning one, can only reach so many people, as Nguyen suggested in his Fresh Air interview saying:

"Hollywood produces $200 million, $500 million blockbuster epics that will totally destroy my book."

Now, Nguyen's novel has been adapted into a new HBO series, eponymously named with the book. Can this show change the tide of a singular narrative?

YouTube

A new kind of representation

Daniel Chin is a staff writer for The Ringer and reviewed the show for the site. In that review, he says The Sympathizer confronts Hollywood's history of the Vietnam War in an unprecedented way.

The show takes place soon after the fall of Saigon in 1975, and follows the protagonist, known only as "The Captain."

Chin says that even centering a Vietnamese character sets the series apart. But the depths of his character build the series even further.

"He himself is a bundle of contradictions, where he is a North Vietnamese double agent and he is part of the communist movement," Chin said in an interview with NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben.

"But there's this great line in the first episode where he confesses to his friend, a man, who is also communist, that he is fascinated and repulsed by America. And his friend tells him that that's what it means to love America. And so we really get to see him kind of struggle with that inner turmoil as the show goes on."

There are other touches that Chin says allow the show to subvert longstanding tropes in Vietnam War media, like having Robert Downey Jr. play four separate roles within the show.

"It's kind of a funny commentary on how, again, how interchangeable Asian actors are in Hollywood, where it really doesn't matter where they're truly coming from as long as they're Asian."

Listen to the full episode by tapping the play button at the top of the screen to get the full picture on this new perspective on the Vietnam War.

This episode was produced by Marc Rivers. It was edited by Courtney Dorning. Our executive producer is Sami Yenigun.