The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Netflix] - WASP NETWORK | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Netflix] - WASP NETWORK

wasp network review
In '90s Florida, Cuban spies infiltrate anti-Castro groups.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Olivier Assayas

Starring: Edgar Ramírez, Penelope Cruz, Gaël Garcia Bernal, Ana De Armas, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Wagner Moura

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In the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Bush and Clinton regimes stepped up their ongoing campaign to oust Fidel Castro and bring McDonalds and Starbucks to Cuba. Anti-Castro Cuban exile groups - mostly based around Miami and often involved in drug smuggling - were financed by the CIA and conducted terror attacks on their native land, targeting Cuba's thriving tourism industry. To counteract these counter-revolutionaries, the Cubans established a network of spies in Florida, with communist secret agents posing as defectors. The network was known as the "Wasp Network".

That's as much as I knew about the Wasp Network before watching writer/director Olivier Assayas's film of the same name. When the end credits rolled I still didn't know much more about this chapter of history, as Assayas's movie is a superficial thriller that never seems all that interested in getting to the heart of its subject matter.

wasp network review

Wasp Network focusses on a trio of Cuban spies. The first to arrive in America is Gerardo Hernández aka Manuel Viramontez, who establishes the network. When we first meet him it's 1990 and we're told he was born in 1967. That would make him no older than 23, but he's played by the very forty-something Gael García Bernal, with no attempt made to de-age him, not even so much as hair dye. Gerardo is followed by René González (Édgar Ramírez), a Cuban airforce pilot who leaves behind his wife, Olga (Penélope Cruz), without telling her the real reason behind his defection to the US. Soon after arrives another pilot, the playboyish Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura).

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All three are warmly embraced by the exiled Cuban community. René is even taken under the wing of José Basulto (Leonardo Sbaraglia), leader of an influential anti-Castro organisation, and given a job as a pilot tasked with aiding Cuban refugees on their hazardous sea voyages to the Florida coast. He is also taken advantage of by drug smugglers and made to fly cocaine to the US from Honduras. Juan Pablo becomes a superstar in the community, wedding the superficial and submissive Ana Magarita Martínez (Ana de Armas). Meanwhile, the FBI begin to suspect that the three men may not be all they seem.

wasp network review

Something Netflix can offer its creators that traditional movie studios can't is time. Just ask Martin Scorsese, who was allowed to deliver a 209 minute final cut of The Irishman to the streaming service. Only the most dedicated cinephiles are willing to spend that much time in a cinema, but on Netflix Scorsese's film was likely watched by most viewers in several chunks, turning a movie into a mini-series of their own making. It's odd that Assayas was given a mere two hours to tell this story, as with its many characters and multiple overlapping storylines, it seems a tale far more befitting a series than a movie.

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Assayas struggles to make efficient narrative use of his limited time, and the result is a shallow summary of the events depicted. There are simply too many characters here, and we never get to know what makes any of them tick. The cast is a who's who of Spanish-speaking acting talent, but the people they play are little more than mannequins. There's a nice blink and you'll miss it moment where Cruz's Olga, newly arrived in the US, rubs a free magazine perfume sample onto her wrist, but apart from that brief bit of insight we never really get any indication of how the Cuban spies are finding life in America. Are any of them tempted by their newfound comfort? Who knows? It's something Assayas strangely doesn't seem interested in exploring.

wasp network review

As a thriller, Wasp Network is decidedly short on thrills. There's a well-rendered sequence involving a young man recruited to plant bombs in several Havana tourist hotspots, but with no prior introduction to either the bomber or any of his would-be victims, there isn't much for us to get emotionally invested in. We're left to simply admire the sequence on a technical level. Elsewhere, there's little of the Assayas we know from his distinctive French movies. This feels like a journeyman assignment for the acclaimed filmmaker, who struggles to inject any life into the drama. There are a few de rigueur sub-Scorsese montages accompanied by rock music, but a large portion of the movie simply involves characters having lunch meetings.

Wasp Network suffers heavily from its fence-sitting objectivity. Anyone familiar with Assayas's oeuvre knows he's no fan of capitalism, so you might expect him to frame the communists as the heroes here. Instead he steps back from throwing his lot in with either side, simply presenting events in a dull, non-politicised manner, like one of those politicians who claims there were "good people on both sides" in order not to lose any votes. We can reason easily enough why the drug cartels want Castro removed, but no case is ever made for why Gerardo, René and Juan Pablo are so committed to their specific cause. The three men come across as dullards simply following orders, with no real passion for their mission. Had Oliver Stone made Wasp Network, it would no doubt be a lot more myopic and manipulative, but it might at least be entertaining.

Wasp Network is on Netflix UK now.

2020 movie reviews