Even Wayne Gretzky missed the net a couple of times over the course of his career. An overstuffed espionage thriller that bites off more than it can chew and never manages to find its footing, Olivier Assayas’ “Wasp Network” is an exceedingly rare gaffe from one of the greatest filmmakers of the last 30 years. Even so, his restless genius can still be felt percolating below the surface and struggling to come up for air. While this scattered, staccato dramatization of Cuba’s most infamous spy ring struggles to dramatize its tangled web of defections and double-crosses, the movie’s underlying strengths are the stuff of vintage Assayas; its best moments allow the French auteur to explore some of his oldest infatuations against a backdrop made of quicksand. The personal toll of political currents, the friction between analog and digital worlds, hot people looking super hot together — so many of Assayas’ favorite things are trying so hard to poke through this convoluted true story, but that story is too relentless and volatile to spare a thought for such things.
The real people involved learned that lesson the hard way. The first one we meet is a beefy Cuban pilot named René González (“Carlos” star Edgar Ramírez, delivering a conflicted and humane performance that perfectly conforms to Assayas’ terse rhythm), who was born in Chicago, and has a secret plan to get back to the United States. He gets in his plane one morning in 1990 Havana, and flies it under the radar straight to Miami. The U.S.S.R. has fallen, Fidel Castro’s authoritarian government is weak, and America’s embargo on Cuban goods is so crippling that René’s family can hardly afford to eat (“In Cuba, everything is short,” he tells a customs official).
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It feels like the right team to get out and start a new life in Florida. Of course, René’s hard-working wife Olga (Penélope Cruz) and their young daughter — both of whom he leaves behind — don’t quite see it that way. It’s curious for us, too. Would a man as stoic and true as René really up and ditch his family? Could he really be that confident that Castro’s rule is coming to an end, and that Cuban citizens will soon be free to leave the island? René doesn’t even flinch. The only hint of emotion comes when he starts flying sketchy missions for an anti-Castroist group in Miami, flying over Havana in an unarmed Cessna and papering the city with pro-democracy leaflets. He doesn’t seem bothered by the MiGs the Cuban Air Force scrambles to scare him, but his eyes turn glassy as they scan the streets below in a hopeless search for the wife and daughter he abandoned.
Assayas, cobbling together as clean a narrative as he can from the avalanche of history contained in Fernando Morais’ book, “The Last Soldiers of the Cold War: The Story of the Cuban Five,” doesn’t dwell on sentiment. As per its director’s wont, “Wasp Network” skips along on a cool teal surface of political subterfuge. Every scene arrives with a raft of new acronyms, shifty figures, and wrinkles in the ongoing struggle between Castro and the self-exiled Cubans who want to liberate their country from him. Assayas’ complete disinterest in picking sides or designating people as heroes or villains becomes a tepid narrative force unto itself, as the stretch of water between Miami and Havana — between René and Olga — seems to grow wider with every stalemate.
Some defectors have an easier time of things. When the matinee idol-looking Juan Pablo Roque (“Narcos” star Wagner Moura) swims the seven miles from Havana to Guantanamo Bay, he’s greeted with a Big Mac. When he gets to Florida, he’s barely on the ground five minutes before he’s introduced to the prettiest divorcee in town (Ana De Armas as Ana Margarita Martinez), and they soon get married. An ambitious type with a dark side, Juan decides to push his luck and pursue the American Dream; “I didn’t flee Cuba to be a loser in Miami,” he barks. He will not be the last major new character introduced, as it’s only when Gael García Bernal shows up at the hour-mark that “Wasp Network” shifts into sudden focus, and everything we think we know about these people is erased by a new context.
Even after a pivotal mid-film reveal, Assayas continues to race through any sort of richer characterization, cutting between scenes of domesticity and spycraft so erratically that it blurs the line between them. That, of course, is the intention — “Wasp Network” is nothing if not a film fascinated by the porous border between personal desire and political devotion. Some people can live for a cause, and others have more intimate human needs. Some people think they can live for a cause, only to learn that minds are as malleable as governments; political movements have a funny way of taking people from one place to another.
Perhaps “Wasp Network” would have been a more involving film had Assayas slowed down for long enough to find some clarity amid the chaos; if he hadn’t been so determined to fit the entire story of “The Cuban Five” into a two-hour film (perhaps another “Carlos”-sized miniseries could have done the trick). Instead, all of the most interesting things about René have to be inferred, and the map of his patriotism — to one country or another — is too uncharted to follow. Assayas himself scrambles to keep up with his own pace, dropping massive information bombs via sudden montages and rearranging his characters so hectically that it’s difficult to appreciate the pull that byzantine political conflicts have over their lives. Cruz shines when Olga comes to the fore in the movie’s final stretches, but at that point the space between she and René doesn’t seem worth navigating.
“Wasp Network” saves most of its sting for its second half, when Assayas seems more free to follow his muse and focus on the things that draw his attention. A long sequence following an anti-Castro terrorist may force the other characters even deeper into the background, but it’s rivetingly endowed with the casual suspense of “Boarding Gate,” and the capricious energy of “Cold Water.” A spatter of late-film raids coldly underscore Assayas’ humanist sympathies, which he reserves for compassionate people regardless of which government they fight for. But it’s the sympathy these characters spare for each other that demands more scrutiny. Who can you really trust in a world full of traitors? “Wasp Network” asks the question, but it’s too busy to stick around and find out.
“Wasp Network” premiered at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.