'Wasp Network': Film Review | Venice 2019

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
Frequently takes flight but can’t stay on course.

Penelope Cruz, Edgar Ramirez and Gael Garcia Bernal star in Olivier Assayas' real-life spy thriller about the band of Cuban defectors who infiltrated anti-Castro terrorist groups in Miami in the early 1990s.

It's a big ask to expect an audience to grasp all the intricacies in the history surrounding the dozen Cuban intelligence officers operating in South Florida in the '90s to thwart anti-Castro terrorist attacks at home. Drawing from Fernando Morais' meticulously reported book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, writer-director Olivier Assayas struggles to streamline the mountain of details into a dramatic throughline in which motivations and movements acquire lucidity. Wasp Network is a big, handsomely shot movie with a strong cast and stunning location work. But it's also a knotty tangle of endless back and forth between too many characters, situations and settings to make for satisfying storytelling.

Messiness, lack of clarity and rushed character development have at times been a factor in the prolific Assayas' more sprawling, ambitious films, like Something in the Air or Les Destinees Sentimentales, which is one reason why the expanded five-and-a-half-hour, three-part canvas of Carlos, his forensic examination of the life and terrorist activity of the Venezuelan revolutionary known as the Jackal, worked so well.

The lead of that 2010 miniseries, Edgar Ramirez, is no less compellingly charismatic as the head of a terrific ensemble in the new film, alongside Penelope Cruz in top form and simmering with heated emotion. There are comparable elements in the focus on revolutionary spirit that ties into the director's longtime fascination with dissidents, protestors and free thinkers, working and fighting to protect their political ideals and effect change. But the heart of this complex material for too long remains elusive to Assayas, and he locates it too late to give the choppy drama cohesion.

That's not to say Wasp Network is dull or uninvolving. The very first scenes convey the instantaneous pleasure of being in the hands of skilled craftsmen, with beautiful, briskly edited aerial sequences over Cuba and the waters separating it from Florida. The movie has no lack of visual scope.

Ramirez plays Rene Gonzalez, a pilot who steals a small plane and defects to Miami after leaving his Havana home one morning without a word of warning to his wife Olga (Cruz), just as the post-Soviet Union economic collapse is about to make life in Cuba much tougher. Factory worker Olga remains angry in the years that follow, regarding her husband as a traitor. But as she prepares to join him in Miami for the sake of their young daughter, government officials inform her that Rene is actually a patriot and hero, his mission as part of a Cuban spy ring called the Wasp Network providing invaluable intel on terrorist groups carrying out attacks on their home county.

Once established in Florida, Rene goes undercover working for Jose Basulto (Leonardo Sbaraglia), whose "Brothers to the Rescue" organization helping Cuban refugees masks militant anti-Castro political activity under a humanitarian cloak, its operations partly bankrolled by drug-trafficking. Basulto is linked to reclusive millionaire Jorge Mas Canosa (Omar Ali) and Luis Posadas Carriles (Tony Plano), who are behind a series of bombings of Havana tourist hotels in summer 1997, designed to hit the fragile Cuban economy where it hurts. These are given taut, suspenseful handling by Assayas, recalling some of the Coppola-inspired action scenes in Carlos.

Also working as a pilot for Basulto is Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), whose "defection" entails a daring swim across the ocean to Guantanamo Bay. Juan Pablo is movie-star handsome and he knows it; he marries Ana Margarita Martinez (Ana de Armas) at a 1995 wedding considered the social event of the decade by Cuban exiles, and the couple is photographed with Canosa. To help finance his taste in Rolexes and expensive suits, Roque doubles as an FBI informant. But his zigzagging allegiance lacks the focus to be a gripping plot thread, and the impact of his subterfuge on Ana Margarita, kept in the dark for the duration of their marriage, is relegated to onscreen text at the end of the movie.

Similarly underserved is Gerardo Hernandez (Gael Garcia Bernal), extensively trained in Havana to perfect a cover identity and then relocated to Miami to head up the Wasp Network. Bernal is a wiry, engaging presence as always, but these characters never acquire much dimension or get much of a chance to illuminate what they stand for.

Assayas introduces the many players in a haphazard manner; as if seeming to realize that error, he then lurches abruptly into a split-screen recap with accompanying voiceover midway through the film, identifying the key figures in the Wasp Network and their areas of expertise. Likewise, their arrests and prosecution under the Clinton administration — when the holdouts who refused to cooperate with the investigation became known as the Cuban Five — happen without much buildup momentum to heighten either tension or emotional involvement.

The writer-director does make the point that this misunderstood group was punished by the U.S. while the country turns a blind eye to CIA-friendly organizations conducting a covert war against Cuba, their operations involving drugs, terrorism and murder. But that observation is just part of a dense barrage of often stimulating but just as often confusing material that would have benefited from more character detail to flesh out the constant information dump. On a scene by scene basis, Wasp Network can be riveting, but as a whole, it falls short. Even the movie's warmly drawn core figures, Rene and Olga — as good as Ramirez and Cruz are — often get a little lost in the fray.

Production companies: RT Features, CG Cinema, Nostromo Pictures, Wasp Network AIE, Scope Pictures, France 2 Cinema, Orange Studio Memento Films Production
Cast: Penelope Cruz, Edgar Ramirez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Ana de Armas, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Wagner Moura, Omar Ali, Tony Plana, Nolan Guerra Fernandez, Osdeymi Pastrana Miranda
Director-screenwriter: Olivier Assayas, inspired by Fernando Morais' book Last Soldiers of the Cold War
Producers: Rodrigo Teixeira, Charles Gillibert, Lourenco Sant’Anna
Executive producers: Sylvie Barthet, Lourdes Garcia, Lia Rodriguez, Sophie Mas, Adrian Guerra, Miguel Angel Faura
Directors of photography: Yorick Le Saux, Denis Lenoir
Production designer: Francois-Renaud Labarthe
Costume designers: Jurgen Doering, Samantha Chijona Garcia
Music: Eduardo Cruz
Editor: Simon Jacquet
Casting: Antoinette Boulat, Maria Mercedes Hernandez Lazaro, Valerie Hernandez, Anna Gonzalez
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Orange Studio

In Spanish, English
123 minutes