With “Wasp Network,” Olivier Assayas loses his sting

Wasp Network Wasp Network (Netflix)

Olivier Assayas’ latest is a clunky thriller that resists cinematic convention to its detriment.

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Even for a filmmaker known for his cryptographic career, Olivier AssayasWasp Network is an obtuse piece of filmmaking. From its perpetual jet-setting structure (More than half the runtime is devoted to imagery of planes in transit), halting but impressionistically fade-heavy editing (Non-Fiction collaborator Simon Jacquet), and the script‘s (written solely by Assayas) compulsive disinterest in providing context for progress, it’s a film that feels hell-bent in resisting the cinematic assumptions that would come with telling a story like this.

It’s become a common refrain to say that a narrative film would have worked better as a documentary. And that is probably the case here in adapting the crisscrossing true story of Cuban double agents who appeared to defect to the United States through Miami and Guantanamo Bay, only to use this deception to infiltrate and sabotage Cuban resistance groups within the US.

Stretching across various years, the events of the true circumstances are both a dense history of neighboring organizations with different goals and determined by decades of unseen decisions. These factions intersect with criminal enterprises like drugs and homegrown terrorism but that feels superfluous to Assayas’ interests even as that suggests a definitive coherence to his choices.

Wasp Network
Ana de Armas in Olivier Assayas’ “Wasp Network”. (Netflix)

It’s certainly by design that the film practically drowns the viewer in acronyms like PUND, The CANF, and a laundry list of organizations like Brothers To the Rescue and Consejo Cubano. They’re evocatively name dropped as the spies have hushed discussions with others that connote an illegality but it’s often up to the viewers to trace the allegiances of these groups which is not to say that feels relevant either.

And even that short synopsis would give the wrong impression of the dramatic textures that take precedence or the implication that this functions as a history lesson. There’s likewise not really any political stance though it’s all examining multiple countries’ failures. The Cuban, Cuban-American, and US conflicts are all engaged in objective skullduggery. The Cuban-Americans work to topple the Fidel Castro regime with hotel bombings, the Cubans create pretenses for illegal prosecutions, and the US feels both three steps behind and one step ahead by sheer virtue of resources. And again, these actions are only really glimpsed as the script stubbornly refuses to commit to a material center, favoring fractured abstractions.

Ostensibly, that base of gravity should be represented in the three main spy perspectives of René Gonzalez (Edgar Ramirez), Gerardo Hernandez (Gael García Bernal), and Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), but while the film does structurally flit between these three men’s lives – it’s not very invested in their motives or even the meat of their actions.

René is the most traditionally sympathetic, a devoted patriot to his country who nonetheless needs to leave his wife, Olga (Penélope Cruz), and child without an explanation which leads her to brand him a traitor. A compelling juxtaposition emerges there as Olga laments her husband even as she’s complaining about the lack of electricity, food, and the regime in Cuba. A thread follows where Olga struggles to gain independence from Cuba only to run into bureaucratic blockades that prevent her from emigrating to the US. 

The script stubbornly refuses to commit to a material center, favoring fractured abstractions.

Juan Pablo is more of an enigma, a high-roller pilot whose movie-star good looks whose placid demeanor houses more venal motives. There’s significant time spent with his wife, Ana Margarita Martinez (Ana de Armas) whose gleaming persona enlivens these scenes, but her personality is more someone who questions how Juan Pablo’s making so much money than something approaching a person. She, along with a number of other players, consistently expose the vacancies of the characters.

And Gerardo is a person whose major function appears to be to relay info about Cuban-American efforts and create opportunities to shutter these attempts. All of these characters are then banded together through an intermittent narrator who fills in a few blanks and establishes the primary target of Cuban-Americans – the tourism industry. That detail leads to the most thrilling sequence, a minutia filled sequence where a man covertly plants bombs in three prominent Cuban hotels. All the while, all of these sequences are shot and choreographed with an unnecessary grace. An errant wide shot of a man running along a shore bridge is nothing short of magisterial and other scattered shots feel glossy and carefully blocked in a way that feels undeserved given the thinness of the material.

This wispy character development and collection of disparate elements may insinuate that Assayas is playing a long game, but even as a series of punctuations about the stagnating effects of drag-down political chess, the actual film doesn’t climax as much as it diffuses into a series of text epilogues. This type of academically controlled pacing does admittedly feel familiar for him. He’s a director whose biggest emotional moments have an air of quiet confidence whether he’s nudging toward the possibility of impossibility in Personal Shopper, the winking self-actualization of Something In the Air, or the muted horror of Demonlover. But the only ending sensation of the knotted Wasp Network is a controlled glide into emptiness.

Wasp Network is currently streaming on Netflix.

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