‘Wasp Network’ Gets Tangled in Its Own Confused Web of Politics and Cuban Spies
There is something about the subject of Cuba that tends to entrap the outsider director who gives it a go. Acclaimed and respected French director Olivier Assayas has attempted to tackle one of the least explored yet most complex angles to the Cuban story with “Wasp Network.” But he makes the fatal mistake of splitting one angle into three while approaching each one with the timidity of not wanting to take a firm stance on any of them. It is an apolitical movie about highly charged, extremely political subjects that also suffers from strange issues with tone and editing.
It is the early 1990s, the Soviet Union has collapsed and hard economic times have hit the enduring Communist regime in Cuba. A pilot named Rene Gonzalez (Edgar Ramirez) decides to steal a plane and defect to Miami where he is immediately welcomed by the Cuban exile community. Gonzalez’s decision was not easy since he left behind his wife Olga Salanueva (Penelope Cruz) and their young daughter in Havana. Soon another high profile defection occurs when Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), another pilot, swims to Guantanamo Bay and also defects, this time at the stationed U.S. base. As both men adjust to life in the U.S., seeking jobs and in Roque’s case falling in love with a local Cuban-American named Ana (Ana de Armas), they also begin to build links with the exile underground. Wealthy exiles are ecstatic at the idea that a tightened U.S. embargo will strangle the Fidel Castro government, so they carry out provocative acts such as the “Hermanos al Rescate” (Brothers to the Rescue) flights to drop leaflets into Havana to stoke unrest, or dropping supplies to refugees trying to leave on makeshift rafts. But some of these groups are going further and plan terrorist strikes in Cuba to disrupt tourism. This is why Gonzalez and Roque are really in Miami, they are spies sent to infiltrate these groups and report their activities to the FBI.
“Wasp Network,” which made the festival rounds before finally finding a distributor with Netflix, functions like Assayas attempting to cram so much information and characters culled from his research into this case that none of it forms into a lean narrative. The true story this film dramatizes is the case of the “Cuban 5,” which on the surface was simply the case of five Cuban spies who were infiltrating anti-Castro groups in Miami and were themselves arrested when they handed over information on planned terrorist attacks against the island to the FBI. The case made headlines again in 2014 when four of the spies were swapped for captured U.S. intelligence agents as part of President Obama’s restoration of diplomatic relations with Havana (information Assayas leaves out of the movie’s recap end credits). Assayas never even touches on the spies’ arrests until there are about 30 minutes left in this 2 hour film. Instead for the first two acts the movie never tells us what it is actually about. Gonzalez and Roque land in Miami and meet with a lot of well-off Cubans who hate Castro but don’t offer many insights into what their goals are aside from smoking cigars, pointing at the alpha in the group and saying “this man will help bring democracy to Cuba.” Gonzalez writes many sad letters to his wife Olga, who has to endure the shame back home of her husband being tagged a “gusano” (worm) or traitor. Roque and Ana have quite the lukewarm romance which goes from making out in his car to marriage, even after she wonders how he can afford an $800 Rolex and he threateningly says, “you don’t know everything about me.” That should kill the relationship but she decides to stick with it.
These needless moments never explain to us that these men are spies, so tension is never truly built. Assayas also keeps away from any serious discussion on politics. He wants to be balanced and throws around a lot of dialogue about how there is scarcity in Cuba, which is code for “communism sucks,” and then presents the contrast which is that right-wing Miami exiles are not only planning attacks, but some traffic cocaine out of South America to fund their activities. There is a randomness in news reports about the Castro government cracking down on dissent and then scenes where Gonzalez feels hesitant when his exile friends do a drug run in Honduras. If we had known he was a spy by then there would be a more intense dimension to all this. One has to wonder if Gonzalez and Roque were ever tempted by the luxuries of capitalist living. They never discuss patriotism, socialism, or what the Cuban Revolution inspires in them to take such a huge risk. The exiles likewise never discuss what drives them aside from platitudes about “democracy.” Cuban exiles in Miami are the same as Iranian expatriates in Los Angeles, a mixture of fresh exiles and the old ruling elite, driven by diverse issues of class, history and haunted memories. None of this is ever explored in Assayas’s script because he cannot decide what he wants to focus on. Assayas re-creates a highly controversial incident from 1996, when two Hermanos al Rescate planes were shot down by Cuban fighter jets after they were issued warnings. It is very well-staged but feels unintentionally random. Is it a critique of the Cuban regime? Or does Assayas feel the exiles had dug themselves into a hole by baiting the government with illegal flyovers? Imagine if Venezuelan Cessnas began dropping pamphlets into Washington, D.C.
After a meandering first act the movie then shifts in an awkward way into thriller mode. Rock n’ roll music and an unidentified narrator reveal who Roque and Gonzalez really are after introducing us to Gerardo Hernandez (Gael García Bernal), another Cuban spy who is essentially the handler for the other two. Anyone unfamiliar with the true story will be astounded to learn there are three other spies in Miami, code-named The Wasp Network. Assayas only gives the others a quick glance and never returns to who they are or what they must be experiencing. We also see two terrorist attacks carried out by the exiles using hired mercenaries including a machine gun raid on a beach and a well-reported hotel bombing that killed an Italian tourist. Out of nowhere Assayas throws in a villain to connect all this to, militant exile Luis Posada Carriles (Tony Plana), who indeed ran networks attempting to assassinate Castro using hired Salvadorans. Actually if you research the guy Carriles had quite a rap sheet that included bombing a Cuban airliner in 1976 and training Contras in Nicaragua. Poor Assayas finds no room for any of this in his cluttered movie (thankfully). The editing gets too confused anyway. At one point the screen simply reads “Present Day,” which is an odd choice considering the narrative is still taking place in the late ‘90s and none of what came before was flashback.
Assayas has always been an elegant and smart director. But from his avant-garde debut “Irma Vep” to his atmospheric ghost story with Kristen Stewart, “Personal Shopper,” he has never been an explicitly political director. The closest has been his 5-hour magnum opus “Carlos,” also starring Edgar Ramirez in what remains his best role as 1970s terrorist Carlos the Jackal. But that film worked precisely because it is about an egomaniac loyal to no cause other than himself. Carlos sprouts simplistic Marxist rhetoric but only cares about money, women and the flash of vigilante violence. It’s a stunning portrait. In “Wasp Network” we never get the sense Assayas understands any of these characters or the complexities of the historical tempest they’re caught in. His eye for beautiful compositions is still present here, but he feels like an outsider looking in.
By the time the spies get arrested there is barely any time left and we get a teary scene of Penelope Cruz telling Edgar Ramirez she will always visit him in jail for as long as she must. He will get out quick in movie time because Assayas has run out of space. “Wasp Network” wants to give every character and political angle some room, the result is a cluttered closet of a movie. Whatever one thinks of the Cuban government or the Miami exile community, the tricky thing about politics is that stances cause friction. But it is better to make a clear case than to leave all sides falling into boredom.
“Wasp Network” begins streaming June 19 on Netflix.