Review: Olivier Assayas’s Wasp Network Is a Political Thriller in Search of Thrills

The final product feels like more of an interesting and beautifully filmed anecdote than compelling political and human drama.

Wasp Network
Photo: Netflix

Both too much and not enough, writer-director Olivier Assayas’s Wasp Network takes a surprisingly little-known chapter in the post-Cold War espionage game and starts to blow it up into an epic-sized story before losing the thread. Based on Fernando Morais’s 2011 book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, the film starts out as a crisply paced, lavishly photographed, and character-based study of what the members of the so-called “Cuban Five” spy ring did and how they did it. Unfortunately, it spreads its attentions so wide and at times without consequence that the import of the events it depicts starts to get lost.

The most prominently featured member of the spy ring is René González (Édgar Ramírez), a pilot who supposedly defected to America in 1990 but was in fact infiltrating Miami’s anti-Castro Cuban-American community. Having left his wife, Olga (Penélope Cruz), and child behind in Havana, he tells the press that he hated Cuba’s shortages and material poverty. Supported by a network of dedicated anti-Castro émigrés, he seems to quickly adjust to life in capitalist America. One émigré group recruits him to fly over the Florida Straits, looking for rafters who they can identify for the Coast Guard to pick up. It isn’t long, though, before René and another pilot and Cuban Five member, Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), are hired to fly bales of cocaine to Central America—a law-skirting way of funding the cause that seems to build on the same weapons-and-drugs pipelines laid the previous decade between Miami’s C.I.A. outposts (staffed partially by Cuban-Americans) and the contras in Nicaragua.

Assayas makes a clear attempt not to assign culpability to either side of this odd post-Cold War sideshow. We see footage of the 1995 pro-democracy movement crushed by Fidel Castro and also the real desperation of those fleeing Cuba. At the same time, the anti-Castro activists in Miami come across as more than a little shady, morally compromised, and puffed up; when one of René’s more unctuous contacts, José Basulto (Leonardo Sbaraglia), drops that he was “trained by the U.S. as a terrorist,” he’s looking to impress. The Cuban Five spies like René, Juan, and Gerardo Hernández (Gael García Bernal) who work with the anti-Cuban radicals are presented mostly as stand-up guys, excepting Juan’s somewhat Michael Corleone-style detachment toward his wife, Ana Margarita Martinez (Ana de Armas).

There are times, with its quick jumps between countries and deep ranks of shadowy secondary characters, when the film resembles a more genteel version of Assayas’s Carlos, which starred Ramírez as Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Unlike that nervy, jet-setting procedural, though, Wasp Network is missing a strong driving pulse. The action floats back and forth from Florida to Cuba with few moments of tension, any great sense of connection to its characters, or a sustained espionage plot to keep the narrative string wound tight. When Ramirez’s stolid and somewhat unemotive swagger isn’t used in the service of the kind of pumped-up action narrative that Assayas presented so boldly in Carlos, his presence can feel like a drag, especially when compared with Bernal’s performance, which is more emotionally connected to his character, and as a result leaves you wanting to know more about Gerardo.

Assayas fills the screen with handsome actors and sun-dappled, palm-shrouded backgrounds, and drops in the occasionally awesome music cue (the Feelies’s “The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness” scores a sequence in which one of the Cuban Five slips back to Havana). But while his technical mastery remains top-notch, too much of the film drifts along without trying for dramatic buy-in. When it does strive to hit a crescendo, the results fall short. One segment showing the Cuban Air Force shooting down two émigré rescue planes in 1996, in reality a massive escalation of this quasi-war, is almost perfunctorily inserted into the film.

Assayas interrupts the story’s low-key rhythms about halfway through to deliver the big reveal of the Cuban Five’s spy status. However, burdened by clunky narration and a clumsy nod to Scorsese via its surf-guitar scoring, the sequence doesn’t deliver the kind of revelatory charge that Assayas seemed to be going for. While it was exciting to hear that Assayas had shifted away from his literate urban dramas, Wasp Network is ultimately a misstep. Because it never fully embraces the Cold War spy narrative and fails to dig in-depth into the story’s tangle of intrigue and moral murk, the final product feels like more of an interesting and beautifully filmed anecdote than compelling political and human drama.

 Cast: Édgar Ramírez, Penélope Cruz, Ana de Armas, Wagner Moura, Gael García Bernal, Leonardo Sbaraglia  Director: Olivier Assayas  Screenwriter: Olivier Assayas  Distributor: Netflix  Running Time: 123 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2020

Chris Barsanti

Chris Barsanti has written for the Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Publishers Weekly, and other publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and Online Film Critics Society.

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