The spies for Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro are immortalized in the shoddy and scattered new Netflix film Wasp Network. Combining extensively researched real stories with fictionalized action, the film presents an ideologically muddled look at what are essentially acts of terrorism. Written and directed by Olivier Assayas, Wasp Network — the name of the operation — chronicles the story of Cuban informants working in America. Founded by Gerardo Hernandez, a former Cuban diplomat, the group sneaks into Miami, where they set up base camp and help immigrants floating in on rafts. At first, operations run smoothly. The crew patrol the skies, occasionally flying over Cuba to drop pamphlets on the Caribbean blue and banana leaf green buildings below. But this is a movie, so we know problems are bound to surface.
Like Assayas’ more intimate work (Personal Shopper, Irma Vep), the conflicts are first introduced on a personal level. Before expanding into politics, René González (Edgar Ramírez) makes a sacrifice many a man would turn down: leaving Penelope Cruz (his wife) behind, he steals a plane to go help his comrades in Florida. There, he teams up with another escapee, Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), who left his acting career in Cuba to rebel against anti-Castro American groups. Both sacrifices loom like shadows, quietly following the men wherever they go.
That feeling of regret only worsens when other types of trafficking are thrown into the mix. René and Juan aren’t just smuggling people. They are also flying drugs and weapons from America to Cuba, a twist that should elicit a moral conundrum — do they keep moving drugs for their country, or do what they know is right? Rather than embracing these conflicted motives, Assayas’ sympathies seem to lie only with Castro, not his victims, which is unfortunate for the screenplay’s relatability.
An even bigger problem here is Assayas’ earnest pacing. René’s flights from country to country get confusing and an overemphasis on the love affair between Juan and Ana Martinez (Ana de Armas), a seductive social climber, gets tiresome. They meet in Miami, dance at a club, and their ensuing, melodramatic relationship softens whatever espionage edge Wasp Network has going for it. Even Moura and de Armas look tired of each other mid-movie. Whether that’s because they recently collaborated on another docudrama, Sergio, or because they are given nothing to do but bicker, is anyone’s guess.
Either way, Wasp Network loses its sting early. Cuba’s relations with its people, America, and the push toward democracy are covered in detail, utilizing a vignette timeline to cover it all, usually over coffee in long conversations that go nowhere fast. René is sent to a lot of these mission rundowns, and he just might have set the record for “most coffee shop visits” in cinema history. The character spends way too much time listening to political debates instead of acting on his patriotism.
That isn’t to say Ramirez isn’t engaging in the role. His subplot with Cruz as wife Olga — who finds a way to join him in Florida — is a glimpse at what Wasp Network could have been, and unlike Moura’s romance, it provides proof that love and sacrifice can coexist, and that we need not hate others solely for their skewed ideals. René and Olga are heroes, not for what side they chose (they are still terrorists), but for their devotion to each other. Love is a battle they can actually win.
The same can’t be said for filmmaker Assayas, who, by taking the side of a tyrant, will have trouble winning over Western audiences. The premier at the New York Film Festival reportedly brought protesters, and Cuban actress Ana de Armas has been singled out by her country as a traitor to the exile community. While there are two sides to every story, it’s hard to imagine either side enjoying this meandering mess of a film.