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On Netflix: WASP NETWORK (2020)

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WASP NETWORK
(France/Spain/Belgium - 2020)

Written and directed by Olivier Assayas. Cast: Penelope Cruz, Edgar Ramirez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Ana de Armas, Wagner Moura, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Tony Plana, Nolan Guerra Fernandez, Osdeymi Pastrama Miranda, Julian Flynn, Anel Perdomo, Julio Gabay, Amada Morado, Carolina Paraza Matamoros, Omar Ali, Carlos Leal. (Unrated, 128 mins)

French auteur Olivier Assayas has dabbled in a bit of everything over his acclaimed career, from 1996's filmmaking satire IRMA VEP to the corporate espionage of 2002's DEMONLOVER and 2007's BOARDING GATE to heartfelt interpersonal pieces like 2008's SUMMER HOURS and 2019's NON-FICTION (both with frequent star Juliette Binoche), and a pair of dramas where he found a muse in Kristen Stewart, with 2014's CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (also with Binoche) and 2016's PERSONAL SHOPPER. His latest film, the Netflix-acquired WASP NETWORK, finds Assayas mining tangentially similar territory as 2010's CARLOS, his epic, five-and-a-half hour chronicle of terrorist Carlos the Jackal, made as a miniseries for French TV but acquired for the US by IFC in both its unedited version on the festival circuit and a truncated 166-minute cut for its brief US theatrical run and VOD (the Criterion Blu-ray edition only has the long version). Based on the true story of the "Cuban Five," WASP NETWORK details--and not always in the most coherent fashion--a Cuban espionage ring that set up shop in Miami in the early '90s, posing as dissidents and defectors fed up with Castro's communist regime having expecting things to change after the fall of the Soviet Union. In fact, they were staunch Castro loyalists looking to infiltrate well-funded Cuban revolutionary groups based in Florida that were often working in conjunction with the FBI, and report their gathered intel back to government officials in Cuba.






The opening hour of WASP NETWORK follows two of the Cuban agents as they make their way to the US and settle in Miami. The first is pilot Rene Gonzalez (Edgar Ramirez, reteaming with Assayas after his career-best performance in CARLOS), who spends three months plotting the theft of a plane and flies under the radar all the way into Miami in 1990, leaving his wife Olga (Penelope Cruz) and their daughter Irma (Carolina Paraza Matamoros as a 6-year-old, then Osdeymi Pastrama Miranda as a teenager) behind in Havana. He doesn't need to worry about being granted asylum, since he was born in Chicago and his family returned to Cuba when he was a child. In 1992, Juan Pablo Roque (ELITE SQUAD and NARCOS star Wagner Moura, the Brazilian Mark Ruffalo) is a revered Cuban Air Force pilot who swims all the way to Guantanamo Bay to declare his intent to defect. He's an instant celebrity with TV interviews, a book deal, and glad-handing from the anti-Castro groups in Miami, and a whirlwind romance with Cuban-born divorcee Ana Margarita (Ana de Armas), who doesn't take long to realize something's up with all of his secrets, his expensive jewelry, and his $2000 suits. Rene keeps trying to get Olga to move to Miami, but his assignment was so top secret that she's still under the impression that he's a traitor and that his skills as a pilot are being used for drug trafficking.


Assayas jumps around quite a bit, and many of the details of the maddeningly confusing--apparently by design--first hour don't become clear until some extensive "get you caught up" narration by Carlos Leal, an abrupt "Four Years Earlier" card, and the midpoint introduction of Manuel Viramontez, aka "Gerardo Hernandez" (Gael Garcia Bernal), the spymaster behind the whole operation, which is codenamed "Wasp Network." The timeline is never really crystal clear--we just know some years have passed when Irma is played by an older kid--and much of the second half gets sidetracked with the machinations of rogue CIA agent and anti-Castro terrorist mastermind Luis Posada Carriles (Tony Plana), and a string of Cuban hotel bombings committed by Cruz Leon (Nolan Guerra Fernandez) that keep Cruz, Ramirez, and Garcia Bernal offscreen for long stretches, the latter two mostly confined to clandestine lunch meetings at Miami restaurants.


WASP NETWORK isn't really able to gain any momentum since Assayas lets scenes end abruptly and goes for frequent and seemingly random fade-outs, almost as if this was cut down from a longer, CARLOS-type project that was intended for TV at some point. Indeed, it more often than not feels like the two-hour Cliff Notes version of a ten-hour miniseries. Such a format might've been more beneficial, considering the amount of time the main stars aren't around and that both Moura and de Armas abruptly exit during the second act. Assayas also indulges in a little Scorsese worship with a brief "last half hour of GOODFELLAS" vibe when de Armas' Ana gets wise and realizes too late that her husband was leading a double life and her world starts falling apart and all that's really missing in Nilsson's "Jump Into the Fire." WASP NETWORK has a fascinating story to tell, but there's simply too much going on here for a two-hour movie to sufficiently handle and effectively tie all of its disparate plot and historical elements together. Months and years go by an in instant, characters appear and disappear, like Jose Basulto (Leonardo Sbraglia), the head of the Cuban exile outfit Brothers to the Rescue, who's set up as a major character but then doesn't really figure in at all. And can anyone explain the FBI agent played by an actor who has no idea how to pronounce the word "alias?"



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