WASP NETWORK, directed by French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, is a jumbled mess of a film without direction, purpose, or momentum. It has the energy and drive of a Wikipedia page, introducing characters and events at random intervals as if someone was editing the story while we watch. There are moments of great beauty and poignant discourse about the ever-volatile relationship between Cuba and America, but they amount to nothing in an endlessly cacophonic big picture. What’s worse is the filmmakers access to Cuba itself, which showcases beautiful scenic vistas and authentic shooting locations, is so lost in the mix that by the end we know nothing more about the country than what could be read in a brochure.
René (Édgar Ramírez), a flight instructor in 1990s Cuba, defects to America in a stolen plane, making a big show of his return to the country he was born in. He leaves behind his wife (Penélope Cruz) and daughter, but believes they will join him one day. Meanwhile, another defector, the smarmy Juan (Wagner Moura), arrives in Guantanamo Bay. Eventually both men find their way to Miami, where they join the Cuban American National Front. As years go by, their work in espionage both for and against Cuba begins to take a life of its own.
It has the energy and drive of a Wikipedia page.
It takes a full hour before a plot begins to form, and by then it’s too late to salvage anything. There are at least a dozen plotlines picked up, but rare few go anywhere. It aims for mosaic but hits a half-filled coloring book. Characters come and go without consequence, most notably in an absurdly comical sequence involving GOODFELLAS-style narration combined with jaunty music, which is supposed to clarify what we’ve been seeing the past hour. But because all of the characters being spoken of have not appeared before and will not appear again, it means absolutely nothing. There is an entire subplot involving Juan’s marriage to Ana (Ana De Armas), which tries very hard to evoke THE GODFATHER, but feels like a loose end nobody needs. De Armas in particular is wasted in a nothing part which has her to look betrayed and take her clothes off — both things that feel like an insult towards any actor.
The frayed storytelling extends to every scene in the film. Conversations are randomly cut short by sudden fadeouts, edits happen within a single shot for no reason, and there’s a constant sense like not enough material was filmed for a complete film. Apparently the story takes place over eight years, but there’s no indication that time has passed other than characters disappearing from existence. By the time the finale rolls around it feels like the start of another movie entirely. Watching the finished product is an exercise in incredulity. I kept asking myself why does this feel like an unfinished workprint? It’s not like this is a first attempt at anything. Assayas is a talented filmmaker capable of crafting intelligent, mature cinema at the drop of the fate. Chronicling decades of socio-political strife fraught with criminal action isn’t new to Netflix, their production of NARCOS proves they’re capable of brilliance.
And yet, nothing works.
WASP NETWORK is an exercise in wastefulness. It takes a group of fantastic actors, a stirring true story with endless potential, and does nothing with them. At best it will hopefully serve as a stepping stone for other more interesting projects about the topic, ones that won’t feel like unfinished pilots not intended for viewing.
If there is anything to recommend from the film, it would be the stellar performance by Penélope Cruz, who communicates years of heartbreak in a single expression. She, like Moura, Ramírez, and De Armas, are better than their material. Let’s hope their next project is more worthwhile.