There have been several films whose content bode better with the long-form, television shows. Watchmen is a great testament to this and movies like The Dark Tower and Blow are examples of why sometimes, you just cannot fit complexly elaborate content in a mere two hours. Add Olivier Assayas’s Wasp Network, on Netflix, to this list, too. It is a bungling mess of a topic that could easily enter the espionage thriller territory. Instead, it gives us a dry look at an intriguing time in political history that becomes too laborious to watch.
Now, a disclaimer — I do not know the history and facts of the film well enough to judge either its accuracy or its depiction. The film is set during the Clinton-presidency era, while Cuba was under Fidel Castro. Several Cubans defected during that point of time and fled to Miami, Florida as an escape from the communist regime and the scarce resources they allocated.
The film opens with René Gonzalez (Édgar Ramírez) fleeing Cuba — a pilot who is termed a traitor. Another pilot, Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura) swam all the way to the US Base in Guantanamo with snorkelling gear on. Both leave their families behind, their children, wives, ex-wives. That is the price you have to pay for the proverbial “freedom.” René claims that electricity lasts for only eight hours back home; potatoes, rice, even sugar, are rationed. Juan is treated with McDonald’s the moment he sets foot on the base, a break from the “McCastro’s” he has been subjected to for years. Although I do wonder whether fast-food chains are readily available on naval bases.
Writer-director Olivier Assayas provides a bird’s-eye view of what defecting and fleeing entails, more so for those left behind. René’s wife, Olga (Penélope Cruz) struggles to make ends meet as she raises their daughter alone, occasionally taking her brother-in-law’s support. Unlike her husband, the story never abandons her plight — we see her work in a factory, as a hospital janitor and a saleswoman. Up until this point, the film progresses steadily. It is slow but necessary. This exposition cannot be comfortable and all-cosy. But all of this is just the first half-hour. There’s a lot more Assayas packs in this film. A lot more.
The rest of the film deals with the anti-Castro mission many of the Cubans have taken up, as well as the FBI. And to counter that, we see the “wasp network” — a group of spies that infiltrate the anti-Castro groups to know their plans beforehand, in order to defend Cuba. This film has the ingredients of a riveting spy drama. It even included fighter jets and montages of hotels being blown up — there’s a fascinating political composition with high stakes. Wasp Network manages to butcher all of that. The fighter jet stand-off was leaden with insipidity. None of what comes remotely close to action leaves a mark — they are all blandly put together to simply relay the narrative forward. And it does not help that it is all tonally disjointed. Moments before the plane action, Assayas laces a frivolous sex scene between two characters whose significance in the film is maybe a tad bit more than that scene.
The most bothersome aspect of this film, however, is that it is an apolitical, tone-deaf story about a subject that literally reeks of politics. Assayas, to give an appearance of fairness and neutrality, abjectly drains the story of any possible voice. There are two parties (not political) in the film — one for and one against the Castro regime. Well, that is all we are presented with. There’s nothing more to it than that. Characters come and go as the story pleases, quite like the whack-a-mole arcade game. All we see them do is chat inside restaurants, and utter some political mumbo-jumbo that, after a point, frankly becomes too cumbersome and stressful to follow. Some of them want to overthrow an oppressive regime and some want to defend it.
But what does Assayas think about this political friction? My guess is, we will never find out. The narrator comes and goes as the story pleases as well, offering a quick, no-frills explanation of what all is happening to prevent us from falling into limbo. It turns into an exasperatingly convoluted mess, almost forcing your hand to turn it off. What is even more painful to say, is that the film still doesn’t end here — there’s double-crossing, more abandonment, and way more spy work, but in a rather plain and episodic manner. It’s a shame that, when compared to this, there isn’t an iota of emotion to give even some value to what we are seeing.
All in all, it’s a reminder that this film could be better packaged as a television series. There is too much to say with too little time. But that still doesn’t rationalise the unemotive, stony account we are given, alongside the characters that had almost no bearing to the story and its culmination. In an attempt to weave together as many anecdotes and narratives as possible, Assayas forgets to give the movie the dramatic punch it needed.
Wasp Network is currently available on Netflix.