REVIEW

Olivier Assayas' Cuban spy movie Wasp Network could have been thrilling, but falls flat

Despite a stellar cast, including Penelope Cruz (above), Wasp Network is flatter than a landing strip. Picture: Netflix
Despite a stellar cast, including Penelope Cruz (above), Wasp Network is flatter than a landing strip. Picture: Netflix

Wasp Network (M)

2 stars

What could have been a thrilling spy movie about Cubans working undercover in America, turns into a dull and complicated mess at the hands of French writer-director Olivier Assayas. A talky screenplay, lazy direction and a stuttering tone make for sluggish viewing despite the presence of a stellar cast including Penelope Cruz, Gael Garcia Bernal, Ana de Armas and Edgar Ramirez.

Ramirez plays Rene Gonzalez, a Cuban pilot who - in December 1990 - steals a small plane and defects to Key West in Florida. He leaves behind his wife Olga (Cruz) and a young daughter, who are devastated by his traitorous actions. In America, Gonzalez starts working for Brothers To The Rescue, a group of expatriate Cubans and opponents of Fidel Castro. Initially flying sorties to locate refugees fleeing Cuba by boat, Gonzalez discovers that there's more to the job than being a humanitarian helper, and is sent on a dangerous mission to drop anti-Castro pamphlets over Havana. As the months go by, he's joined by Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), another pilot who's escaped Cuba, and the two get involved in the smuggling of arms and drugs - activities linked to the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) which is trying to bring down Castro's communist government.

A man with movie-star good looks, Roque falls for Ana Martinez (Ana de Armas) and they decide to get married, despite Roque's mysterious ability to generate a spectacular cash flow from a very ordinary job. Gael Garcia Bernal joins the narrative well past the half-way mark as the man coordinating Castro's intelligence officers in America - a group of men and women determined to stop foreign interference in Cuba, including the 1997 attacks that took place on tourist destinations on the Havana sea-front.

Assayas isn't sure how to structure this story or the point of view needed to make things work for the audience. His screenplay is an endless series of scenes with characters explaining events for the viewer, with the occasional flying sequence dispersed throughout for good measure.

Assayas isn't sure how to structure this story or the point of view needed to make things work for the audience.

The emotional heart of the story is meant to sit with the Gonzalez family - a wife, husband and daughter separated by sacrifice and honour, but you can tell that neither Cruz nor Ramirez have committed to the project, the dull screenplay and Assayas' light-touch direction accounting for lacklustre performances. Although she plays a minor character in the complex tale of espionage and counter terrorism, it's Ana de Armas who does a far better job at bringing some poignancy and passion to the screen. Bernal on the other hand, has little to do but talk.

On more than one occasion Assayas halts his dramatic interpretation of events and reverts to collections of documentary footage, further undermining the story world. There's plenty of real-life drama to draw on - including the wider political and military tensions that existed at the time between Cuba and America - but there are just too many layers and too many characters in play for Assayas to make a cohesive drama, with the constant explanations necessary just to keep on top of the plot.

Of course, the machinations of subterfuge make for challenging storytelling, but movies like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) show how a focused point of view and some nifty screenplay structuring can help ratchet up the tension for the audience. Spy films should get us inside the dynamics of spying, with all the lies, deceiving, double crossing and incredibly high stakes driving the drama. There's very little of this here and, despite the fascinating and colourful source material, Assayas leaves this story flatter than a landing strip.

  • Wasp Network is now streaming on Netflix.
This story Stellar cast, sluggish viewing first appeared on The Canberra Times.