Is Robert Downey Jr.’s ‘The Sympathizer’ based on a true story?

What is real life and what is a work of fiction?

The Sympathizer series screengrab

The Sympathizer is set at the end of the Vietnam War, exploring what happened in the wake of a wave of bloodshed, death and destruction suffered by a country divided by foreign occupation.

But you may not know the extent to which the events portrayed in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s book and the recent HBO Max series are real or fictional. Did a mixed-race spy really go through at least some of the events in the series? Did the war end in the manner portrayed? More importantly, were any of the characters played by Robert Downey Jr. actually real?

When truth meets fiction

While the narrative is inspired by real events, none of the characters are actually real. Rather, they are vehicles to explore themes that Nguyen, who fled the country with his family at 4 years old, wanted to tackle. According to an interview with NPR, the author had a fondness for spy stories and “wanted to write a novel that was actually entertaining.” While his anonymous narrator is fictional, Nguyen explained that he was inspired by a real communist spy: “And there was a very famous spy named Pham Xuan An who was so important that during his time as a mole he was promoted to a major general by the North Vietnamese. And he was friends with people like David Halberstam and all the important American journalists. And they had no idea that he was a communist spy who had studied in the United States. So all these factors were in my mind.”

The author immigrated in 1971, during the war, to the United States. His parents did not return to their homeland until the 1990s.

Saigon really fell in the manner depicted in the show. Furthermore, the series reflects how Americans gave some of their Vietnamese allies false hope that they would be relocated to the US when they knew they would not. Only a handful were brought to America, comparatively to those who stayed.

Some of the cast members have spoken in a behind-the-scenes interview about their own experiences with the war or older relatives who went through it, which makes this project considerably emotional for many among the cast and crew.

The Vietnam War is a scar that still aches. It may be almost 50 years since the end of the war. But there are traumas one does not forget even as the decades pass. The Sympathizer, although fictionalized, accurately reflects this.

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