Wasp Network: An Ambitious Cuban-America Spy Drama starring Edgar Ramirez and Penelope Cruz
Oliver Assayas, the French director who once wrote alongside the likes of Jean-Luc Godard for the Cahiers du Cinema magazine, was certainly ambitious to take on adapting the book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War for the screen. It is a complicated story of the lives of the Wasp network: a group of five Cuban men who were sent by the Cuban government to acquire secret information about Anti-Castroist terrorist groups residing in parts of Florida in the early ’90s. At its most interesting, Wasp Network is a critique of the American justice system.
Rene Gonzales (Edgar Ramirez) is the political exile who gets the most screen time. The film begins and ends with his story and most closely tracks his experience in exile from his country and family. There is inspiring chemistry between Rene and his wife in the film, Olga (Penelope Cruz). One can watch this thespian duo also in the TV series The Assassination of Gianni Versace which is now streaming on Netflix.
Assayas’ handling of the personal narratives of the Cuban intelligence officers adds a depth of suspense, suspense which is inherent in the real-life stories of these Cuban agents who had no contact with one another while gathering intel about the Anti-Castroist operations in Florida. Each officer both in history and in the film lives a double life and only delivers the intel they gather to one superior officer, concealing the information they have from those around them and each other. The officer’s stories overlap one another and as they do new angles to the story emerge. Unfortunately, the film falls victim to a dangerous combination of overlapping the officer’s lives with missing links that may require audiences to deduct at times puzzling inferences regarding the character’s alliances. The docufiction struggles with maintaining a central plot and the conflicts of this historical moment chosen to display are fascinating but unfocused for a single feature-length film.
Wasp Network realizes a number of pressing historical socio-political issues that are relevant to the immigrant experience today, such as Olga’s fight to gain proper documentation in order to facilitate an exit from Cuba with her daughter. In one phone conversation with Rene, Olga expresses to him in a trenchant remark that “I had all of the documents, but they invented a new one.” The dialogue within each scene is consistently dynamic; It simply loses a degree of its vigor due to the sequencing that is repeatedly compromised. Furthermore, there is a significant amount of screen time spent on depicting the Cuban Rafter Crisis, which Rene is heavily involved in lending aid in his role as a pilot. These scenes shot above and amongst the Caribbean sea are vibrant and almost surreal, lending an aesthetic pathos to these circumstances of immigration and exile.
Curiously, not each of the main characters is fully aware of their implications in espionage. In the case of Juan Pablo Roque, a new layer to the already charged political dealings is added when he chooses to become an FBI informant, a job which Rene repeatedly turns down and explains that: “I didn’t join the resistance to abet terrorists, just to save rafters.” In doing so Roque makes precarious his loyalties to the Cuban government. When Roque suddenly leaves his wife and returns to Havana on the day before a major string of terrorist attacks, which target some of Cuba’s major tourist destinations, he claims that he was deceived by militants posing as patriots who were in fact, terrorists. The different orientations of these characters to what it meant to have been a spy for the Cuban government at that time lend an intriguing space to audiences for reflection on the U.S. Cuba relations of the ’90s.
The sequences in the film are intercut with scenes of the FBI closely following the lives of the spies in Miami; A mask shot of Rene in his apartment speaking on the phone with Olga cues audiences into the increasing danger that surrounds him. The film’s tension peaks with the arrests of Rene, Manuel, and the other spies, and then after there is the trial. The trial is all but one minute; All we are given is the judge’s verdict of the case. Why is an aspect that is so crucial to the story shared with us so briefly? This decision carries a profound weight to it. It shows how a few words, a matter of a few seconds, can completely alter the course of a life or a number of lives forever. It shows how time becomes priceless for the powerless in a system of justice and in this case particularly an American system of justice. It shows emphatically the most compelling aspect of the film- that the guilty terrorists are overlooked by the FBI and the innocent spies deemed guilty. With a lofty effort, Wasp Network gives audiences the heart and soul of the story of the Cuban Five and then suddenly hands it all over to a U.S. Federal Court judge in Florida, who makes a mockery of it all. If only she had seen what we had seen or heard what we had heard- or even tried to. Wasp Network, like a masterpiece hanging without a frame, captures the beauty, the irony, and the tragedy of this potent story, it just needs a better outline.