It’s been almost 10 years since French film critic-turned-filmmaker Olivier Assayas tackled historical fiction. His previous foray in the genre, Carlos (2010), is a massive, intimate, five-and-a-half-hour miniseries about one of the 20th century’s most-wanted fugitives: Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, or Carlos the Jackal. A success in nearly every sense of the word, Carlos swept awards ceremonies, captivated viewers across the globe, and even managed to pop up on a whole slew of critics’ “Best of the ’10s” lists in the past year. Now, nearly a decade later, Assayas has wandered back into similar territory with Wasp Network: a true story of political subterfuge just as sprawling as Carlos but told in less than half the time.
Havana, Cuba, the early 1990s. The Soviet Union — a primary source of essential goods to the Cuban people — has fallen, and Fidel Castro’s regime is accordingly in a much weaker position. Living under Communist rule since the late ’50s, Cuba has also been imperiled by a U.S. embargo for quite some time. Couple this with the sudden collapse of the nation’s key international ally, and it’s clear that Cuba is ripe for a rebellion. What exactly that might look like is hazy at this point in the nation’s history, but the heated emotions bubbling underneath the surface legitimize talk of revolution both within the country and abroad. What is a parent to do in times like these? Sit idly by and allow your family to suffer while you wait for change, or stand up and take some sort of action to make the change yourself?
René González (Édgar Ramírez), technically an American by birth but a Cuban at heart, chooses the latter — he steals a plane, leaves wife Olga (Penélope Cruz) and daughter Irma (Carolina Peraza Matamoros) behind, and flies to Miami to join an anti-Castro operation. René’s not alone in doing this: Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), a fellow Cuban pilot, swims to the American Naval base on Guantanamo Bay. He is soon fighting Castro’s government alongside René and finding love in the arms of local beauty Ana Margarita Martínez (Ana de Armas). Their job is extremely dangerous: flying over Cuban airspace, dropping supplies to refugees traveling to Miami by raft, and releasing propaganda-laden pamphlets over cities, all while avoiding attacks from their home country’s military. To them, all their hard work — often done in close collaboration with the FBI — will be worth it to see the removal of Fidel Castro and the implementation of good, old-fashioned Americanized democracy.
That’s the rub: Assayas depicts America and Cuba as intrinsically intertwined, no matter how tense or hostile their governments’ relations might be. José Basulto (Leonardo Sbaraglia), leader of anti-Castro insurrection group Brothers to the Rescue, talks of John Wayne and Jedi Knights in his recruitment speech to René. Juan Pablo Roque beams as he’s handed a Big Mac, a large order of fries, and a Coca-Cola on arriving at the U.S.’s Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. He and Ana joke about being each other’s Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston, respectively, the former vowing to serve as bodyguard to the latter if they ever find themselves in harm’s way. With this, Assayas argues there’s a reason René and Juan and countless other refugees didn’t head east toward Port-au-Prince, Haiti, or west toward Cancún, Mexico. The American exceptionalism that Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton personified in the ’90s permeated the world, allowing the American Dream to infiltrate the hearts and minds of the Cuban people without the help of a single boot on the ground (even though there was plenty of that happening, too).
Juggling complex themes, a stacked cast, and a convoluted timeline of events, Wasp Network’s biggest mistake is that it’s simply too sprawling to be so short. Initially playing out as what feels like a series of loosely connected vignettes before a startling change of pace at the midpoint, Assayas’ script occasionally fails to reach the multitudes of heights and depths this true story contains. There are hefty emotional punches, especially following the film’s big reveal at the halfway mark, but a film that’s just more than two hours can’t afford to spend an hour on setup. The returns are immediately diminished by a format like this, and Assayas’ knowledge of what makes a film “work” — a credit to his background as a critic — means that he must have known (or at least suspected) that there could be a problem in his film’s execution. Judging by his tinkering in the editing bay following the film’s middling reception at its 2019 Venice International Film Festival premiere, it looks like he came to this realization too late. The version on Netflix is five minutes longer than the Venice cut, but it’s still not enough.
Assayas spent the 2010s on a hot streak prompted by Carlos, so it almost seems inevitable that the spiritual successor to his most-acclaimed project to date and the bookend to the best decade of his career would fall short. Still, a lesser work from a modern arthouse legend manages to be better than your average studio’s biographical feature helmed by a director-for-hire. Wasp Network is stunningly shot by Assayas’ pair of go-to cinematographers, Yorick Le Saux and Denis Lenoir, the two effortlessly capturing the beauty of Cuban architecture during their brief on-location shoot. Assayas’ batch of talented performers naturally transform his meticulously detailed script into something much easier to swallow — a particularly impressive feat considering how easily some less-capable players could have choked on the dense material. Although organized chaos probably isn’t the best approach to this story about chaos organizations, Wasp Network is a testament to Assayas’ ability to make even his messy missteps seem deliberate.
Wasp Network is now available to stream from Netflix.