“Wasp Network” was going to be a tough movie to make for any filmmaker wanting to stick reasonably close to the facts. That’s because the actual true story is a tangled web of characters, organizations, and allegiances. For that reason French writer-director Olivier Assayas deserves a ton of credit for sticking close to the true account even though it makes his movie a little difficult to keep up with.
Without question “Wasp Network” will resonate more with those who either remember or read up on the real events that inspired it. In its own way it tells the story of the Cuban Five, a group of men sent to Miami by the Cuban government to infiltrate anti-Castro exile factions in the 1990s. Some of these groups sought simply to inspire the Cuban people to stand up against Castro’s regime. But others were terrorist outfits funded by drug money and targeting Cuba’s tourist industry. The Cuban Five were to spy on the various groups and report the findings to the Cuban government.
Taking from a 2011 Fernando Morais book “The Last Soldiers of the Cold War”, Assayas attempts to cover a lot of ground. His structure feels episodic, focusing big chunks of his film on individual players and then weaving the numerous narrative threads together in a tangled yet fascinating final act. Sometimes his storytelling seems more didactic than dramatic as it straightforwardly lays out the facts. Yet it has a palpable emotional center, putting as much emphasis on the personal sacrifices and consequences as the politics of his story.
A terrific Édgar Ramírez provides our entry point, reminding us of how good an actor he is when given quality material. He plays René González, a pilot in Havana who swipes a plane and defects to Miami leaving behind his wife Olga (Penélope Cruz) and their young daughter Irma (Carolina Peraza Matamoros). René begins a new life in the States, joining a covert anti-Castro group to help other defectors boating over from Cuba. Meanwhile Olga is left alone and struggling to put food on the table. This moral haze hangs over much of the film’s first half.
The next person we meet is Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), a pilot himself and high-profile Cuban celebrity. He too defects, actually swimming from Cuba to Guantanamo Bay. Once granted asylum he moves to Miami and joins the exile group. Unlike René, Juan Pablo lives a lavish lifestyle winning over and marrying a young beauty named Ana Margarita (Ana de Armas). But she (and we) soon learn that Juan Pablo is a man of many secrets.
The third key player is Gerardo Hernandez (Gael Garcia Bernal) who works directly with the Cuban government. He’s sent to Miami to oversee the Wasp Network’s infiltration of the militant groups. Of the three he’s the one we learn the least about. Bernal’s performance is solid, but his character could have used more attention. Ultimately it’s René who resonates most. His story packs the most personal stakes in large part thanks to Cruz’s Olga who ends up being our emotional anchor. De Armas doesn’t fare as well. Her performance is excellent, but its hard to tell if Assayas is most interested in her as a character or as eye candy.
Things ramp up when the exile group’s goals fully come into focus. We get tense scenes revealing drug smuggling from Columbia. Assayas even covers the 1997 Havana hotel bombings. Even more layers are added when the CIA gets involved and we get defectors among the defectors. It certainly makes things harder to follow and keeping a running tab on who’s who is a challenge. At the same time the craft behind the camera is evident and there are several visual choices to admire.
I can’t deny the film’s faults, especially for those with no familiarity with the true events whatsoever. So take my advice – do some quick reading on the backstory before watching. It will lessen the confusion and open up a lot of what Assayas is doing. With “Wasp Network” it’s fair to say he may have bitten off more than he can chew. But I appreciate the ambition and I’m glad he took the route he did rather than playing it safe.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS