Wasp Network

 

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An ambitious, wide-ranging work that falls short in spite of good intentions.

 
Wasp Network   

Édgar Ramírez (centre)

 

Back in 2010, the French filmmaker Olivier Assayas made a work about Carlos the Jackal that was shown both as a TV series and as a cinema film lasting well over five hours. That is the one past item in the director's very diverse oeuvre that provides a relevant comparison with Wasp Network. The tile refers to a body of Cuban intelligence officers who in the 1990s were sent to Miami to infiltrate anti-Castro groups such as CANF (the Cuban American National Foundation) and Brothers to the Rescue which was organised by the terrorist José Basulto. In 1998 five of these infiltrators, who would become known as the Cuban Five, were arrested by the FBI, accused of conspiracy to commit espionage and murder and sentenced to jail. Among them were Gerardo Hernández and René González. Thus it is that here, as in Carlos, Assayas is handling real-life facts covering a number of years, material that is at once complex and, in the eyes of many, controversial. The view expressed in Wasp Network is one that sees these men as victims of injustice.

 

Wasp Network is not a short film (it lasts for just over two hours) but it is arguable that the material would have gained in clarity and been possessed of a greater depth of characterisation had it followed the mode adopted for Carlos. However, in this case, there is a much more serious defect involved. We know that over his long career Assayas has become skilled in directorial technique and that positive aspect is well to the fore during a compelling sequence in Wasp Network which shows the planting of bombs in hotels in Havana by a young man specifically hired for this purpose. But, whereas that segment is clear-cut and assured, it is surprising to find that as the sole writer here Assayas is so ineffective when it comes to finding a way to tell this story to full effect.

 

At the outset, Wasp Network looks set to be the story of one of the Cuban Five, René González (Edgar Ramirez), with particular emphasis on the cost of his actions to his family life. When sent to Miami on his secret mission he could not reveal anything of what he was doing to his wife, Olga (Penélope Cruz), and it appeared that he had fled Cuba for a better life in America deserting Olga and their eight-year-old daughter, Irma, in the process. He was branded a traitor but in time the disillusioned yet still loyal Olga would seek along with their child to be reunited with René in Miami. But even when at long last she learnt the truth behind his departure she found it initially difficult to forgive the pain that he had caused to her and to Irma.

 

Making this in essence a biopic about René González would have provided a firm dramatic thread and one which could readily have fed into enough about Rene's undercover work and about the wider political issues to create a broader canvas with both elements drawing together at the climax when with the arrest and the sentencing the personal and the political merge. But instead Assayas chooses to break off repeatedly to bring in other figures. Thus early on we suddenly switch to another man, Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Maura), who arrives in Miami claiming to be a defector and substantial footage is devoted to him as we witness his attachment to Ana Margarita Martinez (Ana de Armas from Knives Out) whom he marries but who comes to suspect that his secret dealings involve drug-running. Later, in a film that is constantly switching from one location to another, we have a move of a different kind as the movie goes back in time to introduce Gerard Hernández (Gael García Bernal) who had been the first man to be dispatched to Miami to spy on the likes of CANF. As though realising that the narrative needs outside help, Assayas at this late stage falls back on introducing a narrator to provide extra facts but it feels clumsy.

 

As one would expect from this cast, the performances are good (Ramírez who had previously had the title role in Carlos is on fine form and Penélope Cruz casts glamour aside to be part of the ensemble and to show Olga as an ordinary woman caught up in exceptional circumstances). Nevertheless, even though René and Olga always return to centre screen eventually, the fact that Wasp Network keeps moving away to other areas, other incidents and other locations means that what might have been a truly engrossing drama on more than one level feels for most of the time like a feeble shadow of what it might have been.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Edgar Ramírez, Penélope Cruz, Wagner Moura, Ana de Armas, Gael García Bernal, Leonardo Sbariglia, Tony Plana, Nolan Guerra, Osdeymi Pastrana, Julian Flynn, Amanda Morado.

 

Dir Olivier Assayas, Pro Charles Gillibert, Lourenço Sant'Anna and Rodrigo Texeira, Screenplay Olivier Assayas, based on the book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War by Fernando Morais, Ph Yorick Le Saux and Denis Lenoir, Pro Des Francois-Renaud Labarthe, Ed Simon Jacquet, Music Eduardo Cruz, Costumes Jürgen Doering.

 

RT Features/CG Cinéma/Nostromo Pictures/Scope Pictures/France 2 Cinéma-Netflix.
123 mins. France/Brazil/Spain/Belgium. 2019. Rel: 19 June 2020. Cert. 15
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