‘Wasp Network’ review: convoluted spy drama loses focus amid tangled plot

Netflix's international thriller deals in secrets, but the biggest mystery here is what's going on

On a typically sunny morning in Havana, Cuba, Rene Gonzalez (Edgar Ramírez) waves goodbye to his wife and young daughter, before heading to an airstrip, stealing a small plane and flying to Florida.

He’s apparently defecting, leaving behind a life of near poverty under Fidel Castro’s communist regime, in order to enjoy the lavish life that Florida promises. His wife, Olga (Penelope Cruz) is oblivious, and left to eke out a living without her husband, working in a tannery and lying to her daughter about her father’s status as a traitor to his country.

It’s not that he doesn’t care, rather, Rene has a higher calling – to become part of the Wasp Network, a ring of spies who infiltrated anti-Castro groups in the US, figuring out what they are up to in an effort to stop them from executing their plans.

He’s one of several figures who feature in writer-director Olivier Assayas’s meandering adaptation of Fernando Morais’s 2011 book, The Last Soldiers of the Cold War. Along with Juan Pablo Roque (star of Netflix‘s Narcos Wangna Moura) and Gerardo Hernandez (Gael García Bernal), Gonzalez sets about undermining terrorist attacks and ocean rescues.

Wasp Network
Ana De Armas in ‘Wasp Network’. Credit: Netflix

Frustratingly, Assayas, whose series Carlos shows he knows how to tell a story, doesn’t stick with the most interesting trio. The true events had many facets, and the filmmaker does his best to incorporate all of them, but creates a confusing, inconsistent narrative that skips back and forth in time. Halfway through, Assayas shifts to a Scorsese-inspired montage style, replete with freeze frames and voiceover as he seems to lose patience with his own storytelling, delivering more plot in three minutes than he’d put together in the previous hour.

Characters disappear once Assayas is done with them, while others, long thought abandoned, reappear and become the focus of the story. The biggest challenge of making a movie around true events is finding a narrative structure that will work for an audience, and this script proves incapable of dealing with that.

Spreading the story so thinly, Assayas often shoots the bare minimum just to hit a plot point, using dialogue that may well have been written on the spot: “They want us somewhere else!”, exclaims a Cuban police officer as his roadblock was moments from capturing a terrorist bomber. It’s almost as if the director couldn’t be bothered to check Google Maps and give his actor something a bit more specific to work with.

Wasp Network
Edgar Ramírez during a scene in ‘Wasp Network’. Credit: Netflix

The same could be said of the cast in general – there’s a lot of talent on display here, and they all do a perfectly fine job with inconsistent material, mostly lost in the sheer weight of character numbers. Bernal and Moura in particular have a strong sense of what their characters are truly about, while Penelope Cruz and Ana De Armas do their best with woefully underwritten roles.

Still, as confusing and inconsistent as the structure is, it all looks very pretty. Whether it’s a lavish wedding or a prison corridor, Assayas packs in vivid colours and extremely bright lighting. Yet despite being so slickly produced, with such a detachment to the characters, there’s no personality to what he’s shot.

It’s absolutely a fascinating, intricate story (Malcom Gladwell’s recent book Talking to Strangers does a far better job of telling it in 2-3 chapters than Assayas does in over two hours) but a lack of focus and the failure to give the audience anyone to truly care about means Wasp Network is a messy, although pretty, missed opportunity.

Details

  • Director: Olivier Assayas
  • Starring: Penelope Cruz, Edgar Ramírez, Ana De Armas
  • Released: June 19 (Netflix)
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