“You think the FBI can tolerate such activities on American soil? I highly doubt it”
The 1990s are known for the dissolution of the Soviet Union (December 1991), the end of the Cold War (1947-1991), and the rise of the Internet, which brought with it a revolutionary new era of communication. What the decade is probably less known for is the true story presented in Netflix’s internationally co-produced Wasp Network (2019), written and directed by Olivier Assayas.
The drama follows a group of defectors, who abandon communist Cuba for a promising new life in Miami, Florida. René (Édgar Ramírez) painfully forsakes his daughter and wife, Olga (Penélope Cruz), who are left behind in Havana. Popular and handsome Juan Pablo (Wagner Moura) starts over with a new wife he meets in Miami, Ana Margarita (Ana de Armas). The two pilots, and many more like them, accept the label of Cuban traitors in order to infiltrate anti-Castro organisations. The defectors quickly learn about the perils of espionage, and the atonement it demands along the way.
The plot of the film is based on Fernando Morais’ 2011 biography The Last Soldiers of the Cold War. It details the 1980s and 1990s, when Florida-based groups opposing Fidel Castro, the Cuban President from 1976 to 2008, carried out hundreds of terrorist attacks on Cuba, bombing hotels and shooting up beaches in a bid to annihilate Cuba’s tourism industry. The Wasp Network, made up of a dozen men and two women, was sent to crack those organisations, gathering essential data. Aside from presenting the emotive self-sacrifice of the double agents, the story delves into the decades-long conflict between Cuba and the United States, illustrating the growth of the Cuban exile community in Florida – as well as a trial that has been condemned as a distortion of justice.
The events of the biography are based on the true story of the Cuban Five, who are prominent figures in Cuba’s history. Their faces embellish murals and stamps, and there is hardly anyone unfamiliar with the historic events. In particular, the tragic end of the sting operation, which began in 1996, when Cuban fighters shot down two planes that were carrying American citizens working with an exile group, Brothers to the Rescue. This led to the FBI’s crackdown of the activities, and a screeching shift in the spies’ lives.
The events are fascinating, but the film’s presentation of them leaves much to be desired. Wasp Network never provides much background information, failing to ponder over the likelihood of the audience being read up on the topic. Unfortunately, that is a prerequisite for understanding the film. Otherwise, we are left stumbling through the murky fog of random characters and arbitrary sub-plots. This is made worse by the absence of a concrete goal to look forward to. Instead, the film chooses to rely solely on our willingness to be subjected to a mildly-rousing string of events that seems to favour drawn-out, vague dialogue and half-hearted goodbyes. The plot, therefore, feels protracted and stiff – with no clear end in sight. This lack of story building results in fizzled-out tension and jaw-breaking yawns – not to mention a frustrating lack of clarity.
Interestingly, it is the women, not the stone-faced spies, who end up stealing the spotlight. Ana de Armas is sensationally captivating as Juan Pablo’s thrill-seeking love interest. Though she represents more of a means to an end than a life-changing companion, both her elation and sorrow splash some much needed emotion onto the screen. Similarly, Penélope Cruz’s dedication to her role is noteworthy. She commands the Latin American Spanish accent masterfully, wielding it like a weapon before her tearful eyes. Sadly, the few elements that dazzle in the film get lost in the bloated stretches of a staggering plot.
What we are left with is a spy movie that is too hazy to be alluring, and too genuine to be dismissed as unremarkable.