It’s always difficult to watch a director end a streak of excellent, or at least interesting, movies with one that is just flat out disappointing. After a run of more than a decade that included acclaimed, awarded, and frequently discussed films like Summer Hours, Clouds of Sils Maria, Carlos, and Personal Shopper, French writer-director Olivier Assayas has come up way short with his new film, Wasp Network.
And it’s a damn shame too, because Assayas has assembled a fine cast led by Penelope Cruz, Gael Garcia Bernal, Edgar Ramirez and Ana de Armas, and there are flashes of greatness and eloquence within Wasp Network’s very long two hours. But instead of focusing on the personal drama that is hidden within the film, Assayas seems to have wanted to make an epic, and the result is a shapeless, tedious mess that has to stop twice to sum up or explain events through voiceover and montage.
Based on a true story, Wasp Network opens in Havana, Cuba in 1990, as pilot Rene (Ramirez) kisses his wife Olga (Cruz) and six-year-old daughter goodbye one morning and heads to work. Once there, however, he steals an aircraft and flies to Miami as a defector. A stunned Olga is left behind to make ends meet and deal with her husband being branded a traitor. Rene, meanwhile, finds work as a flying instructor in the States. He also helps a Cuban refugee aid organization called Brothers To The Rescue, led by an enigmatic former CIA agent (Leonardo Sbaraglia), which hires him to fly over the waters between Florida and Cuba in search of Cubans escaping by boat.
Elsewhere, a high-profile member of the Cuban Air Force named Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura) swims to Guantanamo Bay, where his escape lands him both a book deal and celebrity status. Eventually his and Rene’s paths cross as they both work with shady paramilitary anti-Communist groups that fund their operations with a little drug and weapon smuggling on the side. The organizations’ plans also include terrorist attacks on Cuba itself, and that is when we discover the truth about where everyone’s allegiances truly lie.
The problem with Wasp Network, which marks Assayas’ prestigious debut on Netflix, is that none of this is presented very clearly or cohesively, and the screenplay drifts haphazardly back and forth between Rene, Juan, and Olga back in Cuba. Other characters and plot points are presented and then shuffled off entirely. A romance between Juan and a luminous Cuban-American woman named Ana (de Armas) culminates in a lengthy, Godfather-like wedding sequence–there’s even a moment when Juan and Ana have to figuratively kiss the ring of the anti-Castro “boss”–before Juan flees back to Cuba, and Ana disappears from the movie entirely.
The double-dealing and knotty internal politics within the anti-Castro orgs make for confusing viewing as well. Despite a repetitive series of exposition-heavy lunches–all these spies were certainly keeping Miami eateries in business during the 1990s–I’ll be damned if I can tell the difference between CANF (Cuban American National Foundation) and PUND (not sure what that stands for) and who is working for which acronym. As mentioned above, Assayas pauses twice for clunky recaps while a midpoint flashback introduces spymaster Gerardo Hernandez (Bernal) and offers even more explanation.
All this puts a tremendous narrative drag on the movie, which it occasionally shakes off with sumptuous shots of both a weathered Havana and a gleaming Miami. But the plot ventures down too many structural dead ends. There is one semi-gripping sequence in which a nervous young terrorist plants a string of bombs in Havana hotels, but because this fellow arrives late in the film, it’s hard to understand why this is even important. A battle in which two Cuban military aircraft shoot down two CANF (or is it PUND?) planes would also be more involving if we had any idea who the guys in the cockpit were.
Much better are scenes that focus on the relationship between Rene and Olga. Although their characters are not as fleshed out as they could be, Ramirez and Cruz bring emotion and empathy to their performances. Rene’s sacrifice–he doesn’t see his wife and daughter for six years, until he can finally have them join him in Miami–weighs palpably on both adults as well as their daughter, and Rene’s genuine love for his family creates a real tension with his sense of purpose.
It’s a potentially risky choice for a corporate American outlet like Netflix to back a movie where the ostensible hero is not what he seems, but Ramirez sells it. And so does a typically excellent Cruz as a woman who is horrified by her husband’s choices and yet proud of him. If only Assayas had focused on their story and given it enough room to breathe, Wasp Network might stand right alongside his other naturalistic, character-driven dramas. Instead it plays out almost as a choppy highlight reel from a longer work, perhaps even a TV series, but one with a great central story surrounded by a lot of filler.
Wasp Network premieres on Netflix today (Friday, June 19).