Olivier Assayas’ Wasp Network, out this weekend on Netflix, is an intriguing entry in the prolific auteur’s catalog. This espionage thriller about the Miami Five – a group of Cuban intelligence officers arrested by the U.S. government in 1998 – hews a little more closely to Assayas’s 2010 political thriller mini-series Carlos than his more recent dramas like Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper. And like Carlos, Assayas’ latest might have fared better broken into parts and given space to expand, instead of crammed together into a single film. However, it still gives viewers plenty to enjoy, from the gorgeous cast to the sun-drenched visuals.
The entry point to its sprawling narrative is Rene Gonzalez (Carlos star Edgar Ramírez), a Cuban pilot. At the beginning of the film, Gonzalez steals a plane and defects to the United States, leaving behind his wife, Olga (Penelope Cruz) and their young daughter, who both believe he’s a traitor to their country. The truth, however, is more complicated. Gonzalez has been recruited by spymaster Gerardo Hernandez (Gael Garcia Bernal) to infiltrate anti-Castro terrorist organizations trying to derail Cuba’s economy.
Gonzalez is joined by fellow spy Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura, Narcos’ Pablo Escobar), who quickly becomes a figure of national interest both for the wild story of his “defection”–he snorkeled his way to Guantanamo Bay – and his movie-star good looks. Roque quickly marries divorcee Ana Margarita (Ana De Armas) in a high-profile wedding, but his new bride has concerns about the secrets her husband keeps from her.
Wasp Network is packed with characters and subplots, with action scenes interspersed throughout. It can be difficult to keep up with who Gonzalez and Roque are working for, as well as the details of the 90s Cuban exile culture they’re part of. It doesn’t help that Assayas withholds the entire context of the espionage plot until the film’s second act, finally providing answers to the questions we’ve been asking for the last 40 minutes. If you can make it that far, however, you’ll be in all the way.
Assayas’ main method of keeping viewers interested is to provide plenty of eye candy, and it works. The film is colorful and opulent, mostly thanks to Roque’s expensive tastes. Assayas has also stacked his film with a cast of very attractive people, who are easy to enjoy watching be attractive together. This is a movie in which Bernal’s natural handsomeness is toned down so he won’t take attention away from Cruz, Ramírez and Moura, whose high cheekbones and charming, knifelike smile make him resemble a Latin Ray Wise.
That opulence contrasts harshly with the difficulty of everyday life in Cuba for Cruz’s Olga. At one point, Assayas abruptly cuts from Roque and Ana Margarita’s glamorous wedding reception to a giant barrel of sludge emptying at the Havana tannery where Olga works as she wraps up for the day and goes home to her child. The film never lets us forget that the female characters are forced to accept the consequences of their husbands’ choices – choices they have little to no say in.
Wasp Network requires more patience than many viewers may be willing to give, especially for a spy thriller. However, willing audiences will find a lot to enjoy, from its 90s setting to its deep dive on the Cuban exile community to its lineup of good-looking characters. It may suffer from poor organization, but even so, the mess remains satisfying.
“Wasp Network” is now streaming on Netflix.