A person sits at a cafe. Perhaps they’re reading a paper or people watching when a stranger walks by and drops a bag by their chair. Casually, our cafe-goer gets up to leave, picking up the bag and disappearing into the crowded streets.
It’s a sequence nearly as old as film itself, and it’s the kind of low-key thrill that has always delighted fans of the spy genre. Those sorts of moments are all over Wasp Network, the handsomely presented thriller from writer/director Olivier Assayas, and if you only saw these bits plucked from the film’s two-hour runtime, they’d probably tempt you to catch up on the whole thing.
But for a film rife with espionage, Wasp Network proves entirely incapable of tapping into what makes the genre tick. The pieces are there: a sprawling cast of big stars, flashy camerawork, period tech (good lord, the ‘90s are period), but a convoluted plot and a complete dearth of character development ensures this falls flat on its face.
Who’s Doing What Where?
Convoluted is actually being generous here, as the way Assayas metes out information is actually willfully confusing. He was adapting from the book “The Last Soldiers of the Cold War”, which I haven’t read, so conceivably the confusion could be a holdover from the source material. But is that an excuse? Shouldn’t an adaptation improve upon the book’s flaws? And when you take into account that Assayas re-edited this thing after its underwhelming premiere at the Venice Film Festival, it becomes clear that he never got a grasp on what’s exciting about the story.
The fact is this isn’t a complicated sequence of events. Cuba and America were pitted against each other as part of the Cold War, which I should hope everyone knows was largely a shady showdown of political and economic actions. You’re given a little primer on the way American policies influenced Cuban life in the opening title cards, so even if you’re not up to date on this period of history, you’ll understand why Cuban’s aren’t particularly satisfied back home.
Still, America would not stop getting involved in Cuba’s business, especially by condoning/utilizing “independent” organizations that took the battle farther than either government was willing to officially go. So, Cuba sent some people over to infiate these organizations, naming the group the Wasp Network and putting them right in the middle of international intrigue.
See, not that complicated. The minutia is extensive, but that’s the kind of thing that should get pared down for the sake of the story. Assayas, though, lets the film get completely lost in the minutia, detailing far too many anti-Fidel Castro groups and a myriad of schemes that get thwarted (or not) by the network.
And then, to make things even harder on himself, he keeps jumping around in time, trying to create twists and payoffs that never really work. He goes so far as hiding why these guys came to the US for the first 45 minutes of the film, culminating in a slickly edited mid-point reveal that should’ve amped up already tense political entanglements. Except without knowing why these guys left Cuba, there weren’t really entanglements, so for the first half of the film, it’s pretty easy to wonder why you’re following these guys at all.
The film mercifully picks up after this, but there’s not enough time to reconfigure everyone’s position on the board. It’s far too easy to get lost and stay lost as new players intertwine, making the mid-film twist a risky and ultimately detrimental gamble.
Waste Of A Cast
Intrigue, of course, is not the only thing that buoys spy films. There’s all that tricksy espionage, which Assayas indulges in sumptuously, and the oddly isolated life of a spy can be endlessly fascinating, particularly if they have families to maintain like so many of the men here do.
The main guy we follow, René (Édgar Ramírez), is shown abandoning his wife and daughter in Cuba without explanation early in the film. This obviously infuriates her but leaves him surprisingly unperturbed. It’s the first hint that the movie might be withholding something from us, and one expects this unusual dynamic to build to something, particularly since the wife is played by top-billed Penélope Cruz. Surely someone of her caliber is here to be more than ‘the wife’, but as you get deeper and deeper into Wasp Network, Ramírez remains stoically distanced while Cruz is still just the wife. It becomes disappointingly clear that we’re not going to get a breakdown of why any of them felt it was worth upending their lives to come spy in America, or even more interestingly, whether they continue to think it is.
Not that I expected motivations to be clear in an Assayas’ movie. Best known for his opaque arthouse dramas Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria, precisely why any of his characters do anything is usually left thrillingly unspoken. But it’s too buried here, and not even the best actors can make up for it.
Sure, Cruz can smear weariness on her face, Gael García Bernal can turn on the charm, Wagner Moura can let sliminess seep through his smile, and Ana de Armas can flash fear and confusion in her eyes. But for all the effort these people put into bringing these characters to life, they aren’t given enough time to flesh any of them out. Character is another casualty of Assayas’ overloaded, unfocused plot, the byproduct of which is reducing a bunch of wonderful performers to glorified props.
Conclusion: Wasp Network
This slick spy story has too many tricks up its sleeve, leading more to confusion than thrills. Assayas gets how this genre should look but not how it should work, so you end up with a pretty, hollow husk of a movie that wastes the talented people involved.
What did you think of Wasp Network? Were you thrilled by its labyrinthine plot or did you find it meandered too much? Let us know in the comments!
Wasp Network was released on Netflix on June 19th, 2020.
Watch Wasp Network
Does content like this matter to you?
Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.