Patrick Preziosi on Olivier Assayas’ ‘Wasp Network’ (2019)
Wasp Network, which comes an astonishing four decades into French director Olivier Assayas’ prolific career, marks the unfortunate low point. This is what happens when characteristic restlessness devolves into uncharacteristic reactionary filmmaking. No stranger to the symbiotic twin cinematic poles of espionage and all-out action, Assayas nevertheless undertook his attempted sweeping Cuban-spy film after his previous feature, Non-Fiction (2018), was met with the pushback of being “boring”. That film’s downright Hawksian kineticism, however, is sorely missed in the face of Wasp Network’s circuitous slog.
In trying to distil the entire historical and political weight of the titular Wasp Network — truthfully lifted from the Cuban Five, a group of Cuban spies deployed to gather intelligence on Cuban-American factions, disguised as defectors — Assayas essentially offers a handful of characters whose motives only truly reveal themselves through blunt exposition. For a political film that takes in all the warring strands of counter-revolution and international relations under its umbrella, matters of moral ambiguity and confusion (a seemingly obvious and expected result of the narrative at hand) either don’t translate successfully or aren’t even present. Amongst all the violence, acts of terror, archival footage, absent husbands, deceit and subsequent reconciliation, you’d be hard-pressed to find a moment in which the emotional tenor of a character meshed with their immediate condition in a time and place ravaged by a history of international mistrust.
There’s a commendable sense of elliptical momentum at the film’s outset, as Cuban pilot René Gonzalez (Édgar Ramírez) unceremoniously picks up for Miami, leaving behind his wife Olga (Pénelope Cruz), and their young daughter without any explanation. René seems all too calm and instantly acclimated with his new citizenship, similarly to how Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura) is a little too eager to embrace his sudden movie star status after defecting-via-snorkelling through shark-infested waters to wash up on Guantanamo Bay (he later takes on the affluent position of an FBI informant). The two also quickly offer up their pilot skills to Jose Basulto (Leonardo Sbaraglia), head of Brothers to the Rescue, a Miami-based, non-profit activist group formed by Cuban exiles in direct opposition to the Cuban government, namely Fidel Castro himself.
As the processes of dissent by Brothers to the Rescue unfold — from flying low over Cuba, distributing leaflets, to providing aid to defectors — one can find shades of another of Assayas’ most overtly political films, his semi-autobiographical, post-68 Something In the Air / Après Mai (2012). However, where that film treated civil disobedience with hypnotic patience, Wasp Network seems to rush through obligatory shots of planes taking on and off again, with Sbaraglia doing his best rattling off anti-Castro platitudes, as Assayas keeps stubbornly pushing things forward at a disorienting pace. Characters and causes soon begin to blend together, all due to Assayas’ misguided choice to keep everything at a relative sizzle and not much more.
Roughly a third into the picture, Assayas plays the film’s most fascinating sleight of hand, an unwriting of our perceptions of everything that had preceded; that it’s delivered with a lack of panache renders it a total deflation, albeit a knotty one. Anyone looking into the history behind Wasp Network will find the names and specifics that govern the film, but the straightforwardness of the moment in question — when a receding-hairlined Gael García Bernal, playing the head of the spy ring, Gernando Hernandez, reveals that the characters who we’ve assumed are anti-Cuba are actually pro — makes it hit with a lateral force nonetheless.
After this sly introduction of true allegiances, Assayas still maintains the film’s lifeless rhythms, and although he’s quite obviously leaning into the side of the Cuban spies, he never offers a true moment of intent sans voiceover exposition or clumsily inserted archival footage and photos. Wasp Network could be confused for a straightforward, unbiased portrayal of the inter-political relationships on display, as harsh a critique that can be made for a film that comes prepackaged with such a history surrounding it. A final stab at poignancy is made at the end, when headshots of the actors are compared with their real-life counterparts, accompanied by onscreen text detailing their lives beyond the end of Wasp Network. However, such a tacked on sequence’s inclusion scans as a last-ditch effort to curry audience favour rather than provide actual closure.
Without anything in the way of interior lives to dig into, the performances begin to lose their footing, giving way to caricature. Functional characterisation is one thing — Assays himself is a professed Michael Mann fan, and this film’s particular insularity feels indebted to Miami Vice (2006) — though a disservice is done when suddenly slapped onto true events. One particularly tense sequence, chronicling the 1997 Cuban hotel bombings, feels later tarnished, when, following the FBI’s arrest of René and the rest of the network, Olga’s American boss reassures her, “Don’t worry, I’ve had plenty of run-ins with the FBI. Those guys are scumbags.” The film continues to push itself into these corners, in which it undoes its own successes for moments of such inconsequentiality, and Assayas’ directorial voice is buried under all the rote airport-thriller machinations.
If Assayas really finds himself affected enough by this story to dedicate an entire film to it, it’s impossible to understand why he wouldn’t indulge in some deserved hero-worship for his subjects like, say, later day Clint Eastwood (Denis Lenoir and Yorick Le Saux’s digital cinematography further brings Eastwood into the conversation). He skimmed the surface before, but with a meta-cinematic, unabashed authorial touch; even if beset by production troubles, Wasp Network still suggests nothing past it spinning its own wheels.
Wasp Network screened as part of the 57th New York Film Festival.