French auteur Olivier Assayas moves away from the quiet urbane settings of his last few films with Wasp Network — a brash tropical drama following the post-Cold War spies, terrorists and counter-terrorists operating between Havana and Miami in the 1990s. Unfortunately the film is skipping the big screen due to current circumstances, but it is available right now via Netflix. Adapted from Fernando Morais’s 2011 book ‘The Last Soldiers of the Cold War’, Assayas enlists an all-star (and very attractive) cast that includes Penelope Cruz, Édgar Ramírez, Gael García Bernal and Ana de Armas, to tell the story of the ‘Cuban Five’ spy ring.
After opening titles that explain the United States government’s brutal embargo against struggling communist Cuba, we’re introduced to the pilot René González (Édgar Ramírez) who leaves his wife (Penelope Cruz) and child, steals a light aircraft and heads the same way as so many Cubans before him: to Miami. There he becomes a poster boy for Cuban exiles and anti-Castro operatives who run missions to disrupt their former government — or does he? It is a sturdy, handsome film, with Assayas combining glossy location work and exciting set pieces as he lays out the crosses and double crosses of the plot in a way that is both compelling and broadly legible.
Wasp Network sees the filmmaker working in back in the mode of Carlos, his brilliant 2010 film/miniseries which also starred Ramírez as a globe-hopping para-military. His new film could probably benefit from that longer runtime — it can sometimes feel that there are gaps or character arcs in need of a little more flesh. But this is tricky territory, and Wasp Network is never less than absorbing; approaching epic scope while cleverly delineating the nuanced ways in which ideology leads its characters into living life in shades of grey.