If you happened upon any random sequence from the Netflix film “Wasp Network” and stuck around for five or 10 minutes, you might well believe you’re looking at an awards-buzz, period-piece epic filled with big star performances, stunning visuals and elaborate production values. You’d be half-right.
Writer-director Olivier Assayas’ based-on-a-true-story political crime thriller features a big-name cast (Penelope Cruz, Edgar Ramirez, Ana de Armas, Gael Garcia Bernal) and is filled with memorable images, from prop planes flying back and forth from Havana to Miami to a horrific terrorist attack on a beach to a lavish wedding reminiscent of the opening scene of “The Godfather.” Deadly serious people are involved in deadly serious business in “Wasp Network,” and there’s an air of importance and urgency to their every move, and we should be utterly immersed in this story — but we’re not. Not even close.
The saga of the real-life intelligence operatives known as “The Cuban Five,” who infiltrated Cuban-American anti-Castro groups in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is an incredibly complex and dense tale, and though Assayas has masterfully handled equally challenging material, e.g., 2010’s “Carlos,” there are so many players in “Wasp Network” and so many storylines that never fully connect, we get lost in the weeds time and again. (“Carlos,” which starred Ramirez as the revolutionary known as “The Jackal,” was a three-part, five-and-a-half hour miniseries. “Wasp Network” might well have worked better with a similar amount of breathing room.) This is such a tangled web, it’s nearly impossible to ascertain the true motives of numerous main characters, let alone decide who’s a rogue hero freedom fighter and who’s an opportunistic criminal.
Ramirez is outstanding as Rene Gonzalez, a small-plane pilot and flight instructor living in the Havana of the late 1980s with his loving wife Olga (Penelope Cruz), who works at a local tannery, and their young daughter. One morning, Rene finishes his espresso, kisses his wife and child, heads out to work — and steals a plane and defects to Miami. Rene says he wants to make a better life for his family, as the collapse of the Soviet Union’s economy is already having crushing effects on life in Havana. For years, Olga believes her husband is a traitor — but Gael Garcia Bernal’s Gerardo Hernandez, who heads up a Cuban spy ring known as the Wasp Network, eventually explains to her Rene is actually a great Cuban patriot gathering intel on the growing number of revolutionary terrorist groups planning and carrying out bloody attacks in the homeland.
As I said: Complicated.
Another storyline involves Wagner Moura (“Narcos”) as the movie star-like double agent Juan Pablo Roque, whose marriage in Miami to the beautiful and captivating Ana Margarita Martinez (Ana de Armas) is the social event of the year in the Cuban community. Roque had defected to the United States with a death-defying swim to Guantanamo Bay and was funding his lavish lifestyle by acting as an informant to the FBI — and getting involved in other activities, about which he tells his wife she’d be better off not knowing.
Deep into the movie, we get a split-screen montage as a previously unheard offscreen narrator tries to explain what’s happening and who’s who and where this is all going. It’s as if the filmmakers realized in post-production they had a problem.
By then it’s too late.