Penélope Cruz and Gael Garcia Bernal star in a Cuban spy thriller by French director Olivier Assayas that is glamorous but also genuinely insightful, writes Nicholas Barber.
Olivier Assayas’s vibrant, ingeniously structured, tragicomic Wasp Network joins the ranks of essential films about international espionage, partly because it refuses to behave as such films normally do. Adapted from Fernando Morais’s book, The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, it is a gripping true story set at a time when the Berlin Wall had fallen and many assumed that Fidel Castro’s Communist regime in Cuba would fall shortly afterwards. The fact that so much of it is shot on location in bustling, crumbling Havana is just one reason why it all seems so authentic.
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It begins, in 1990, with a burly pilot, René González (Edgar Ramirez), kissing his loving wife Olga (Penélope Cruz) and daughter goodbye one morning in their Havana flat. He’s got to take a couple of parachutists up for a sky dive, but he’ll be home in time for dinner – or so he says. In fact, in the first of the film’s countless twists, he nips into the control tower, disables the radios, and flies his small plane across the ocean to Miami. Leaving his family behind was painful, he tells the US press, but he couldn’t bear the privation in Cuba any longer. Indeed, he soon hooks up with an anti-Castro organisation devoted to helping fellow defectors, and uses his piloting expertise to rescue refugees who are struggling through the waves on rafts.
After the film’s overstuffed first hour, everything clicks into place with a sudden split screen and a caption that rewinds the narrative to “four years earlier”
Another defecting pilot (Wagner Moura from Narcos) is a smoothie who charms and marries a Miami social climber (Ana de Armas from Blade Runner 2049). He too agrees to fly for the anti-Castro faction, but while René is in it for the good of his fellow “free Cubans”, his new comrade is more interested in the money to be made, and the designer clothes and jewellery he can buy with it. That’s why a little drug-running and FBI-informing on the side are so tempting.
It isn’t easy to keep track of the men’s succession of jobs and contacts in the film’s overstuffed and episodic first hour, but then everything clicks into place with a sudden split screen, a voiceover, a thrum of surf guitar, and a caption that rewinds the narrative to “four years earlier”. This is the Scorsese-ish introduction of the Wasp Network itself, a spy ring run by Gael Garcia Bernal’s greying, goatee-bearded Cuban secret service officer. The network consists of a handful of pro-Castro agents who have been sent to Miami to observe and report on the city’s anti-Castro agents. And that means – without giving too much away – that most of the characters who have been in the film thus far have been pretending to be something they’re not. The rug is well and truly yanked from under your feet, and you never regain your balance.
Assayas’s complex, balanced film forces the viewer to keep reassessing who is on whose side – and whether you should be on their side, too
If the rest of Wasp Network is still tricky to follow, that is the point. Assayas immerses us in a world where several different groups all believe that they are the heroes, and where identities and allegiances don’t stay the same for long. It is a world where Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro appear on television, and each of them sounds, in the moment, as if he has the moral high ground. There are cleverly choreographed spy-movie set pieces: a recreation of the 1997 Cuba hotel bombings is unbearably tense. But unlike a typical spy movie, Assayas’s complex, balanced film forces the viewer to keep reassessing who is on whose side, and whether you should be on their side, too.
Then there is the question of the women and children. While René is on daredevil missions in Florida, Olga is raising her daughter alone, toiling in a tannery, and being ostracised in Havana for being a traitor’s wife. Life gets even more challenging for her in the years that follow – and Cruz conveys Olga’s strength and her suffering with equal intensity. Very few spy films give so much time to the spies’ families, let alone their childcare arrangements. Very few make us think so hard about the sacrifices being made, the ethical issues being faced, and whether the job’s triumphant highs are worth the tawdry lows. Despite all that, Wasp Network is still an entertaining and often glamorous cloak-and-dagger thriller in which the sun is always shining and the actors are all gorgeous. But it offers a rare insight into what it might actually be like to be an undercover agent, and that’s not so entertaining or glamorous at all.
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