HBO’s ‘The Sympathizer’ Is Not A True Story, But Is Based On Real History — And Maybe A Real Spy

By Louie Fecou
Published: April 15, 2024 (Last updated: last month)
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Is The Sympathizer on HBO based on a true story?
The Sympathizer | Image via HBO

The Sympathizer is based on real history and a fictional novel, so it’s no surprise that people are confused about whether or not it’s a true story. Backdropped by the Vietnam War, especially the Fall of Saigon and the ensuing cultural and political fallout, the HBO series — given an extremely high profile thanks to the involvement of Robert Downey Jr. in front of the camera and Park Chan-wook behind it — merges real events with a dramatic, fictional narrative.

Is The Sympathizer based on a true story?

The Sympathizer is not based on a true story, though there are truths layered within, which explains why people have been confused about the authenticity.

The premise, involving double agents, secret masterminds, political deception, and cultural upheaval, is sure to remind viewers of a time of incredible unrest during the Vietnam War and the Cold War. With the era being so well-documented and so many similar stories having been proven as fact, it is easy to see why many would assume that this narrative is truthful.

It would be more accurate to say that The Sympathizer is based on real events and history — and potentially a real person.

What is The Sympathizer based on?

The HBO series is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Viet Thanh Nguyen and was actually the author and professor’s debut as a writer.

The Sympathizer would win the prestigious award in 2016. It tells its story through a flashback in the written confession of a political prisoner, exploring the climate of the South Vietnamese Government in 1975 and then shifting the action to Los Angeles after the Fall of Saigon.

The unnamed narrator is a North Korean spy in the South Vietnamese Army and leaves Vietnam during Operation Freedom Wind with many other South Vietnamese civilians and military personnel, including his best friend Bon. As a refugee, he continues to feed information back to his contacts in the Viet Cong.

After the huge success of the first book, a sequel would be written by Nguyen, with the central character finding himself in France in the 1980s. The sequel is titled The Committed and was published in March of 2021, continuing the story of The Captain.

Who is The Sympathizer based on?

Is The Sympathizer on HBO based on a true story?

Pham Xuan An, who likely forms the basis of the character The Captain in The Sympathizer | Image via Time

While The Sympathizer is generally based on spies active during the Vietnam War, often acting as double agents and infiltrating dangerous situations to provide intelligence, the character known as the Captain is most probably based on Phan Xuan An.

Xuan An was a spy in North Vietnam who walked a line between his allegiance to the military of the South Vietnamese and the life he would adopt in exile in the U.S. Pham Xuan An would find work in the States, writing for the iconic U.S. publication Time Magazine, and other news outlets such as the New York Herald Tribune.

Author Phan Xuan An died in September 2006 due to complications from emphysema. He had returned to Saigon with his family, but it was a decision that he was later known to regret.

The character of the Captain is split in two and struggles to balance the double lives he leads. It makes for an interesting dynamic, and the series playfully succeeds in presenting the situations with style and often darkly comedic beats.

It could be argued that we never get past the character’s title, The Captain, as the author wanted him to represent all the various spies that operated at this time.

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