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How 'The Sympathizer' depicts the Vietnam War

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Hollywood has helped inform America's ideas of the Vietnam War - the traumatized war veterans of "The Deer Hunter" and the "Rambo" series...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRST BLOOD")

SYLVESTER STALLONE: (As Rambo) It wasn't my war. You asked me. I didn't ask you.

KURTZLEBEN: ...The ugly jungle warfare in "Platoon"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PLATOON")

KEVIN DILLON: (As Bunny) Do 'em, man, do 'em.

CHARLIE SHEEN: (As Chris) What are you smiling at, huh?

KURTZLEBEN: ...Capt. Willard's journey upriver to face Col. Kurtz in the horror of what war does to man.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "APOCALYPSE NOW")

MARLON BRANDO: (As Col. Kurtz) Are you an assassin?

MARTIN SHEEN: (As Capt. Willzard) I'm a soldier.

BRANDO: (As Col. Kurtz) No, neither.

KURTZLEBEN: But there was always one thing missing from these Vietnam War stories - the Vietnamese perspective. HBO's new series "The Sympathizer" breaks that pattern.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SYMPATHIZER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We were all marching. We were on your side.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Really? And which side was that?

KURTZLEBEN: Based on the 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Sympathizer" centers on a Vietnamese double agent embedded in a South Vietnamese community in the U.S. while spying for the Communist North. 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, so we called him up to talk about it. Daniel, welcome.

DANIEL CHIN: Thanks for having me on. Excited to be here.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. Well, so first, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that history that I mentioned, those notable American films about the Vietnam War we just ticked through. How has Hollywood tended to approach that conflict?

CHIN: Really, the Vietnam War led to all of these post-war films that you're mentioning, which really showed the horrors of the war and the horrors of this war in particular but really only from an American perspective. So we see the terrible loss of life, the brutality of what happened in the Vietnam War. But it's really focusing on just the pain and the sacrifice being made by American soldiers for the most part. And, you know, really, we see a lot of the psychological toll that it takes on them and how it's turned certain individuals into bloodthirsty monsters or sexual abusers, but it's always limited to their perspective.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. It seems complicated, right? Because it's not depicted like, you know, in so many World War II films as an American triumph or anything. The war is depicted as monstrous and terrible, but Vietnamese people often really don't get portrayed in these. When they are included, how are they portrayed or depicted?

CHIN: Quite often, the Vietnamese characters are the ones being abused, or on the other side of that, they are the savages, the killers, and we see the brutality on that end. But really, they also just serve as kind of the silent extras in the background. Even if they have speaking lines, they're not being translated or subtitled, because really, what they're saying doesn't matter in the scope of these films and the perspectives that they're really interested in telling.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, so let's look at "The Sympathizer." It takes place soon after the fall of Saigon in 1975. And it follows our protagonist, a guy known only as The Captain. And he's a South Vietnamese soldier who's secretly working for the Communists. Now, this kind of protagonist, not only Vietnamese but also a Communist, is pretty much nonexistent in Hollywood entertainment about Vietnam. I mean, I've certainly never seen it. What is so striking about The Captain to you?

CHIN: Yeah. I mean, he's really just such an interesting protagonist in the way that he himself is a bundle of contradictions, where he is a North Vietnamese double agent, and he is part of the Communist movement, but there is - there's this great line in the first episode where he confesses to his friend mom, 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.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. No, I mean, it's all about internal conflict. That seems, from what I've seen, to be the - such a main thread in this series. You know, the show is presented, I should say, within this frame story as a series of confessionals from The Captain to an as-yet-unknown captor. I say as yet because the whole series isn't out yet. Daniel, what do some of these confessionals present about how the Vietnamese people thought about this war at the time that Hollywood just hasn't addressed yet?

CHIN: Yeah. The framework itself is really interesting in that as the series goes on, you see the conflict within the community itself and how there are the South Vietnamese, like, characters like The General who is fighting desperately to try to reclaim their homeland and return, while the rest of this now Vietnamese American community is trying to adapt to living to America. Meanwhile, the double agent, he's still trying to work with his his friend Man and to support the North Vietnamese cause. And it just gets more and more complicated as the series goes on as he has to grapple with what side he's really fighting for at this point and what he's fighting for as the war is over.

KURTZLEBEN: You know, there's one episode in particular I want to get at. It takes explicit aim at Hollywood's treatment of the war. The Captain - again, our protagonist - he's hired as a consultant on one of these big budget epics being directed by a kind of arrogant, fanatical director who is played by Robert Downey Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SYMPATHIZER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Why don't we give our Vietnamese characters some lines? That way they can describe their suffering, you know, just a couple of lines.

ROBERT DOWNEY JR: (As Claude) So predictable. Forgive me. But when you say that, I know you don't understand cinema, not a bit. I don't want to hear people talking about their suffering. I want to feel it. You understand? It's an emotive medium.

KURTZLEBEN: It's clearly inspired by films like "Apocalypse Now." And in writing the book, the author, Viet Thanh Nguyen has talked about writing the sequence as his quote, Revenge on Hollywood. Well, now it's being depicted by Hollywood. So I'm wondering. How successful do you think that revenge is on the screen here in this series?

CHIN: I think this episode works really well, and I think it's definitely the most pointed satire across the entire season. It's so effective in that it's really spoofing scenes and just the tropes that we see in movies like "Apocalypse Now." Like, for example, there's an early scene where there is an older woman who's reaching into a basket, and it looks like the entire squad is about a fire on her. And that evokes a scene that happens in "Apocalypse Now" when an entire boat is slaughtered by the American soldiers when she was really just going for a puppy. And it's revealed that this is actually just a Chinese woman who's yelling at them in Chinese. And to them, the two of the American filmmakers on the set here, it didn't really matter, like, who she was. And it kind of speaks to the interchangeability of Asians in Hollywood's perspective.

KURTZLEBEN: You know, I think, as I've said earlier in our conversation already, that overwhelmingly, these Vietnam War stories, they're told from the American military perspective. But watching this show, I was thinking about an interview that I had seen with the author of "The Sympathizer," Viet Thanh Nguyen, where he pointed out that he didn't really learn much about the Vietnam War in school. And I can say I know I didn't, and I think a lot of American kids don't. I think a lot of people get their education about the Vietnam War from popular culture. So I'm wondering. A series like this, how much of an impact do you think it will have on the broader cultural understanding of the war?

CHIN: Yeah. I mean, it's a great point. And, you know, the - Nguyen has called Hollywood as an industry the memory industry in that same way where so much of our - like, to your point - popular culture really is what's driving our understanding of how events have happened. So when we have shows and novels like "The Sympathizer" that kind of pushes back on that and shows another perspective, it really just adds a lot more nuance to the conversation, and it allows it to really grow in, I think, really positive ways.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, Daniel Chin is a staff writer for the culture site The Ringer. Daniel, thank you so much for joining us.

CHIN: Thanks again for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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