Film Review: ‘Wasp Network’

Despite a great subject, a superb cast and muscular imagery, Olivier Assayas’ Cuban spy thriller seems cut down from a longer mini-series, leaving viewers feeling shortchanged.

Wasp Network
Venice Film Festival

It’s hard to think of another working director who encompasses the range and moods of Olivier Assayas, from beautifully crafted minor-key notes covering major issues like “Non-Fiction,” to films of mysterious, introspective ambiguity like “Personal Shopper,” to the sweeping symphonic feast of “Carlos.” That latter epic will be the most common reference point when people discuss “Wasp Network,” a meaty true-story group portrait of a bunch of Cuban spies who infiltrated anti-Castro networks in Florida in the 1990s. Yet while it aims for big choral complexity and is generally an enjoyable watch, the film feels like an oratorio cut down to an overture, engaging with major characters and events that are dropped in or out with an unsatisfying degree of regularity.

One suspects the original conception was closer to the length of “Carlos,” and though “Wasp Network” will be easier to distribute, with the potential for reaching audiences not usually attuned to the director’s work, it leaves viewers gratified by the filmmaking bravura and the sheer pleasure of watching this superb cast in top form, but also feeling shortchanged.

An apparently tight budget might be partly to blame, though Assayas and his producers have done a remarkable job making the film look super high end, thanks in great part to full cooperation by the Cuban authorities. That affiliation, together with how the pro- and anti-Castro groups are depicted, will likely upset the vocal Cuban community in Florida; how this could affect U.S. distribution is anybody’s guess. However, Assayas isn’t an ideological partisan, and while there’s a heroic element about several characters, he’s far from depicting life in Cuba as a bed of roses, and not simply because of American sanctions. In the end though, he’s unable to uncover that most elusive of all motivations: Why is a spy who’s aware of major flaws in his society still willing to risk everything – love, family, life – for a compromised cause? How does he parse his enjoyment of capitalism’s treats (think Anthony Blunt as well as this film’s Juan Pablo Roque) with support for a communist dictatorship? Even Assayas isn’t able to come up with an answer.

“This is based on a true story,” we’re informed in an opening title, following which pilot René González (Édgar Ramírez) steals a crop duster and flies it to Miami, where he declares himself a defector. It’s a shock to his wife, Olga (Penélope Cruz), left alone in Havana to raise their daughter, Irma (Osdeymi Pastrana Miranda), who’s fated to be taunted for having a traitor for a daddy. What Olga doesn’t know is that her husband is actually a Cuban agent sent to Florida to infiltrate the anti-Castro networks engaging in disruptive activities, including drug smuggling and terrorism. He gets in touch with one of their capos, José Basulto (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a CIA operative who compares himself to Luke Skywalker and is dedicated to helping Cuba overthrow its regime. At first he involves René in ostensibly humanitarian activities, like flying over the waters between Florida and Cuba looking for refugees to be rescued, or dropping anti-Castro leaflets over Havana. Clearly though, Basulto is involved in far more nefarious activities.

Two years after René’s defection, pilot Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura) dons a wetsuit in Caimanera, Cuba, and swims to the Guantanamo Bay U.S. military base, where he asks for asylum. He talks a convincing game, saying he never thought the regime would outlast the fall of the Soviet Union, but now that it has, he’s had enough. Handsome, charismatic and cocky, Juan Pablo also ends up in Miami, where Basulto is only too happy to recruit him to the cause. At the same time he’s working for the FBI as a double agent, enjoying the trappings of the good life, including $2,000 suits, a Rolex and the love of Ana Margarita Martinez (Ana de Armas), a stunning fellow Cuban exile. She sees signs he’s not all he claims, but she’s captivated by his sexiness and cowed by his aggressive personality. Their picture-perfect wedding is the Cuban community’s event of the year, but 10 months later she turns on the news and learns he’s defected back to Cuba.

This is already a lot to take in, but then Assayas throws in a “four years earlier” segment with Gerardo Hernandez (Gael García Bernal), tasked by the Cubans with supervising the moles in Florida and organizing them into the Wasp Network. A helpful voiceover now details who’s who, accompanied by a montage of all the players, but notwithstanding its usefulness, this is an odd moment to include the insertion, almost as if designed to be the prologue of a Part Two recap. There’s yet one further set-piece, involving Raul Ernesto Cruz Leon (Nolan Guerra Fernandez), a young man recruited from El Salvador to plant bombs at various tourist destination sites in Havana to disrupt the sector and further weaken Cuba’s economy. The extended sequence is tense and beautifully edited by Simon Jacquet, but it feels like it either belongs in another film or was meant to be the centerpiece of an episode in an extended version of this one.

Given the large cast, it’s difficult for Assayas to bring out complex motivations, especially noticeable with Olga, reduced to the role of a strong, resilient wife and patriot yet needing more of an inner life, through no fault of Cruz. René is designed as the most sympathetic figure, and Ramírez, of course so memorable in “Carlos,” easily conveys the man’s seemingly open demeanor and warmth, yet his reasons for becoming a spy remain disappointingly one note. At least Juan Pablo is meant to maintain his air of mystery, which Moura handles to perfection, though the character’s sudden disappearance, never to return, is a serious misstep as played out in the film. Easily holding her own in the impressive cast is de Armas (“Blade Runner 2049”), a joyous, bewitching presence whose career seems destined for the big time.

That Assayas was given so much access by the Cuban authorities is something of a miracle, and he makes the most of the country’s crumbling beauty without fetishizing the disintegration. In-flight sequences, helicopter shots and majestic drone panoramas look terrific on the big screen thanks to classic, muscular imagery from DPs Yorick Le Saux and Denis Lenoir. There’s no clue as to how much footage there originally was to edit down to just over two hours, but both story and characters feel like they’ve been trimmed beyond the point of cohesion.

Film Review: ‘Wasp Network’

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Aug. 31, 2019. (Also in Toronto Film Festival – Special Presentations.) Running time: <strong>124 MIN</strong>.

  • Production: (France-Brazil-Spain-Belgium) An Orange Studio, Memento Films (in France) release of an RT Features, CG Cinéma, Nostromo Pictures, Wasp Network AIE, Scope Pictures presentation of an RT Features, CG Cinéma, Nostromo Pictures, Wasp Network AIE, Scope Pictures, France 2 Cinéma, Orange Studio, Memento Films prod. (Int'l sales: Orange Studio, Paris.) Producers: Rodrigo Teixeira, Charles Gillibert, Lourenço Sant’Anna. Executive producers: Sylvie Barthet, Lourdes Garcia, Lia Rodriguez, Sophie Mas, Adrian Guerra, Miguel Angel Faura. Co-producers: Alexandre Mallet-Guy, Matteo de Castello, Geneviève Lemal.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Olivier Assayas, inspired by "The Last Soldiers of the Cold War: The Story of the Cuban Five" by Fernando Morais. Camera (color, widescreen): Yorick Le Saux, Denis Lenoir. Editor: Simon Jacquet. Music: Eduardo Cruz.
  • With: Penélope Cruz, Édgar Ramírez, Gael García Bernal, Wagner Moura, Ana de Armas, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nolan Guerra Fernandez, Osdeymi Pastrana Miranda, Tony Plana, Omar Ali. Narrator: Carlos Leal. (Spanish, English, Russian dialogue)