Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 2015 novel, The Sympathizer, is a brilliant story about the aftermath of Vietnam War.  It’s also an exploration of the immigrant experience, a study in American brutality and arrogance, and a cutting satire of Hollywood—all wrapped up in a tense spy thriller that examines the dualities of espionage in ways that call to mind the work of John Le Carré. It’s a deeply complex narrative, and a challenge for anyone looking to adapt it for the screen. A new HBO miniseries, co-written and co-directed by Park Chan-wook and starring Cowboy Bebop’s Hoa Xuande, gets an awful lot right and has many moments of undeniable power. Unfortunately, it also includes a misjudged performance by co-star and producer Robert Downey Jr., who pops up in multiple roles throughout its seven episodes. The miniseries premieres on April 14.

Park, who helmed this miniseries’ first three episodes and co-wrote all seven, is perhaps best known for his violent action film Oldboy (2003) and his more recent noir mystery, Decision To Leave (2022), which netted him the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival. He also directed a memorable 2018 miniseries adaptation of Le Carré’s 1983 spy novel, The Little Drummer Girl, which told the story of an uncover operative who struggles with her loyalties the deeper she gets into her mission.

Nguyen’s novel deals with similar material, narrated by an unnamed character who describes himself as “a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” He’s a biracial agent of the communist government of North Vietnam, who—at the start of the “confession” that makes up the bulk of the novel—has gone undercover as an aide to a South Vietnamese general and works with an amoral CIA agent named Claude. After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, the protagonist’s North Vietnamese handler, Man, orders him to accompany “the General” to California; he’s to keep watch on his fellow exiles to “make sure they’re not going to get into too much trouble.” As it turns out, the General does have an ill-advised plan, supported by Claude and by a U.S. congressman who’s “so anti-red in his politics that he might as well be green.” Meanwhile, the narrator finds a day job working for a white, casually racist Oriental Studies professor, Avery Wright Hammer, at Occidental College; has a tryst with the professor’s Japanese American secretary, Sofia Mori; and becomes an advisor to an insufferable white film director (“the Auteur”), who’s making an Apocalypse Now–like movie “about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people,” as the narrator puts it. Along the way, the protagonist kills a few people, mostly to maintain his cover, and eventually finds himself imprisoned by the North Vietnamese; as he’s tortured, he finally comes to terms with other horrific acts in his past.

The Sympathizer is a literary tour de force; the reader senses that the text can barely contain the force of Nguyen’s creativity. One single sentence, recounting refugees’ “second- and third-hand” stories of their “scattered countrymen,” stretches to more than 300 words in its crashing waves of misery, but the author is just as skilled in the short form: The narrator’s passing observations about the American experience, for example, are often razor-sharp: “Country music was not necessarily lynching music, but no other music could be imagined as lynching’s accompaniment.”

If the novel has a fault, it’s that its satire feels a bit broad at times; “the Congressman,” for instance, has not one, but three nicknames (“Napalm Ned,” “Knock-’em-Dead Ned,” and “Nuke-’em-All Ned”), and the English author of a racist book, Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction, is named Richard Hedd (get it?). Fortunately, Nguyen doesn’t indulge this sort of thing too often, and it never overwhelms the narrative.

The same can’t be said for the miniseries, which leans into the broadness by casting Downey as Claude, Professor Hammer, the Congressman, and the Auteur. The actor’s interpretation of Claude as a deeply cynical operator is fine, if somewhat unimaginative; however, Downey’s depictions of the other characters are cartoonish at best, to the point that they hardly resemble human beings. (The heavy use of wigs, bald caps, false noses, and so on, certainly doesn’t help matters.) Downey is an executive producer of the miniseries, and one wonders if anyone on the production had enough pull to tell him no—or at least advise him to tone it down a bit. Instead, his prankish scenery-chewing frequently brings the story to screeching halt.

This is a shame, considering the fine work by Park and the other directors—The Constant Gardener’s Fernando Meirelles and The Secret Garden’s Marc Munden—who handle the complex story, and 1970s era in which it’s set, with considerable style. The rest of the cast, too, is excellent—especially Xuande, who imbues the conflicted narrator with impressive charm. Sandra Oh, as the narrator’s fiercely independent colleague and lover, Sofia, is great as usual, and Duy Nguyễn offers a layered performance as the shadowy Man. Those actors’ subtle, nuanced portrayals bring this largely faithful adaptation to life; it’s too bad that they’re forced to share the screen with Downey’s insufferable clowning.

David Rapp is the senior Indie editor.