Tangled and indecisive direction waters down this true story
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seemed that all Communist governments would fall; that was mostly the case around the world except for a few notable exceptions with China, North Korea, and Cuba. With China and North Korea helping each other stay afloat, it was Cuba’s fate that was most unstable in the 1990s, especially with the disappearance of the crucial Soviet aid. Such a transition into a new era of independence and resilience is bound to be intriguing for any filmmaker, especially adept Frenchman Olivier Assayas.
Assayas is the latest director to migrate to Netflix in order to pursue his more ambitious projects. This has resulted in Wasp Network (2019), an ambitious look at a clandestine group of Cubans in Miami. We follow a handful of main characters, but center mostly on Rene (Edgar Ramirez) from Havana, who in the opening scenes abandons his unknowing wife (Penelope Cruz) and defects to the United States. There he joins up with the anti-Castro groups who help rescue rafts of fleeing Cubans, as well as fund terrorist attacks on tourist centers in Cuba, in order to tarnish the country’s international image.
The plot is incredibly complex, but instead of seeming to show a multilayered and complicated world, it comes off as messy and indecisive. Assayas seems to shift protagonists too frequently, so that large portions of the film seem to be out of another movie, with completely different leads. This makes sense given the incredible star-power that these characters are being embodied with, as Wagner Moura, Ana de Armas, and Gael Garcia Bernal each become the focus of entire acts of the film. This is without mentioning supporting players interpreted by Leonardo Sbaraglia or Tony Plana who seem to disappear off the map and reappear extremely randomly. This shifting of protagonists makes each of the characters’ journey seem incredibly shallow and poorly developed. Such movement of narratives also confuses viewers slowing the film’s rhythm and making the entire affair seem incredibly patchy.
Assayas also can’t seem to decide what kind of tone he wants his film to take. Is he trying for a mysterious thriller? Is he going towards a more informative and almost documentarian route? Is this to be an analysis of clashing ideologies and economic systems? Or is this a character study, of why people might choose flag over family? Assayas flits between each of these questions and never spends enough time with each of them in order to flesh them out or explore them. As such, the remaining film is completely bare of passion or ownership, and as the credits roll you feel completely at a loss as to what Assayas was trying to convey. The film even has an abrupt plot twist in the middle of the runtime that suddenly introduces an exposition-driven voice over explaining each scene. Such violent changes in style clash confusingly and showcase the unclear direction that the entire film has.
Perhaps there was a fear of trying to humanize the Cuban government too much, and show the US government as abetting terrorist attacks, but Hollywood has never had too much of a censorship problem, and Assayas is a bold filmmaker who has never shied away from tough subjects. Thus, the timidity with Wasp Network is incredibly surprising. However, it must be noted that the sprawling true story that Assayas is trying to tell was always going to be incredibly complicated to simplify into one film. But with so much going on in the lives of these real characters, one would at least expect to be riveted with excitement and tension in your seat; instead you’re more likely to languish and glance interminable at your clock.
Due to such poor structuring none of the great actors in the cast is given much time to develop or play around with their environment. Certainly, the most capable ones, like Moura and Cruz, are able to shine even with the little material they are given. However, the feeling of watching such performances is one of frustration instead of appreciation, due to having wasted an opportunity with such great performers.
In the end, Wasp Network is a confused and incredibly tangled film, whose indecisiveness causes a snail pace to take its toll on viewers. There is huge missed opportunity in regards to reflecting the discrepancies and faults of the two national rivals depicted in the film, however a fear to insult either one of them seems to have muffled the director. The true story depicted is impressive enough when seen in retrospect, however, Assayas is incapable of giving it justice on the big screen.