Director: Olivier Assayas
Stars: Edgar Ramírez, Ana de Armas, Penélope Cruz
Olivier Assayas – a director with an extremely high-class filmography stretching back over the last 30 years – here makes a slight wobble as he returns to matters political. Wasp Network – available on Netflix following its Berlin premiere last year – sees Assayas reunited with his Carlos star Edgar Ramírez and feels like a dulled negative of that film. Where Carlos was allowed its sprawl and in fact benefited from it, Wasp Network feels truncated, cliff noted, bitty. The second CD of roughshod extras in a belated reissue of a classic album. Fleetingly interesting, but not why you love the artist…
Ramírez plays Rene Gonzalez, a Cuban citizen who defects to the US in 1990, leaving behind his wife Olga (Penélope Cruz) and daughter. Once there, he joins an anti-Castro movement named Brothers to the Rescue, and flies planes assisting Cuban nationals trying to make their way to America on rafts. But, as he is explicitly told by his comrade Jose Basulto (Leonardo Sbaraglia), they are not a humanitarian organisation but a militant one.
Swimming from Caimanera, Cuba to Guantanamo Bay, a man named Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura) defects Cuba and steps into the life of young, beautiful Ana Margarita Martinez (Ana de Armas). Biting into a larger-than-life McDonalds is a snappy witticism that seasons his initial debriefing. Slotting de Armas and Moura arm-in-arm has the side effect of entwining Wasp Network with Sergio, another semi-satisfying Netflix biopic from only a couple of months ago. The icy dynamics, however, quickly disentangle the two. Roque’s intentions are similar to those of Gonzalez; to help take down the Castro regime. Martinez’s natural curiosity brings out his quick-tempered hostility.
A proposition from the FBI to act as an informant places Gonzalez in a quandary. A principled man, he is loath to work for the US government; the same government that enforces a punishing embargo on the country he loves. Just as the crime thriller will invariably show you the intersections in the personas of cop and criminal, so the spy movie will blur the lines between the traitor and the patriot. So it goes for Assayas here. Do you see two faces or a vase? From a remove, the picture is of both, but your perspective changes it, defines it. A dominant position is taken.
Assayas is, as advised, one of the foremost filmmakers working today and his work is characterised by its intelligence. The same goes once again here, but there is a certain something missing this time. His confidence shows in the micro – the staging of individual scenes invites nearly no outright criticism. But in the macro, Wasp Network struggles to cohere into anything of significant impact; something that didn’t occur on his last implicitly political picture; 2012’s Something in the Air.
Perhaps that missing element is something more… human. Something in the Air had languid passages in which we just hung out with it’s activists. Watched them drink and smoke, watched them debate, sleep, fuck. The film had (no pun intended) air in it. Wasp Network, by comparison, feels more mechanical. Aside from a captivating long take of de Armas dancing and a heartrending goodbye seconds before the end, there are precious few moments that allow a seasoning of soul into frame. Granted, there’s a lot to squeeze in (I haven’t even gotten to Gael García Bernal’s Lt. Gerardo Hernandez yet), but this lack of intimacy hurts the film and makes it feel boilerplate.
The second hour attempts to up the ante, bringing in some surprise narration and powering the narrative forward with a flood of exposition and secondary characters. Assayas’ titular ‘Wasp Network’ is assembled in a matter of moments after a hard hour of set-up. It’s a little like we skipped an entire episode or two of a series and only have a ‘Previously On’ recap to ground us again. Then, too soon, we’re back to these workmanlike fragments. Terrorist attacks. Changes in loyalty. History is cataloged. Tick, tick.
There are plenty of inherently thrilling, fascinating tales to tell about the relationship between the US and Cuba since 1959. Assayas’ fractious attempt to capture a kind of overview of his chosen period doesn’t feel like it particularly does its subjects or their stories justice. It is functional and informative as handsome reconstruction, but offers frustratingly little beyond that. Missteps from this director are rare, but it’s hard not to look upon Wasp Network as anything else. That it has ended up as just one among the anonymous masses on Netflix is, ultimately, unsurprising.