Thursday, June 25, 2020

Movie Review: Wasp Network

Wasp Network ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Olivier Assayas.
Starring: Olivier Assayas Based on the book by Fernando Morais.
Starring: Penélope Cruz (Olga Salanueva), Edgar Ramírez (Rene Gonzalez), Gael García Bernal (Gerardo Hernandez), Ana de Armas (Ana Magarita Martinez), Wagner Moura (Juan Pablo Roque), Leonardo Sbaraglia (Jose Basulto), Nolan Guerra (Cruz León), Osdeymi Pastrana (Irmo), Tony Plana (Luis Posada Carriles).

Olivier Assayas is one of the great directors currently working – and one of the most versatile – seemingly at home during large scale epics – like the five-and-a-half hour Carlos, about the famed terrorist, or a small scale ghost story like Personal Shopper, or a throwback to the European art house films of the 1960s and’70s – albeit with a modern twist – in Clouds of Sils Maria. And that barely scratches the surface of his immense, diverse, brilliant filmography. His last film – Wasp Network – would have benefitted from the same treatment that Carlos received – an epic runtime, maybe a television miniseries – because the events covered are so vast, so intricate and complicated, that they simply overwhelm in the films runtime of just over two hours.

Wasp Network is about Cuban spies – and immigration from Cuba – during the 1990s and quite simply tries to tell too many stories at once. There is Rene Gonzalez (Edgar Ramirez), a pilot who pulls off a daring escape – flying from Cuba to Miami where he claims asylum – without bothering to tell his wife Olga (Penelope Cruz) or their daughter about it. It isn’t that he doesn’t love them – he does, and he, and they, spend most of the rest of the film trying to (legally) come to America to join him – but he cannot wait for that himself. He gets involved with some different groups of Cuban exiles – some doing humanitarian work, some not so much. This story is mirrored in another – that of Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), another pilot who defects to America. He marries Ana Margarita Martinez (Ana de Armas) – although she is suspicious of their wealth, especially when he won’t answer questions about it, and essentially threatens to leave if she keeps asking questions. There is even more going in Wasp Network than that – I haven’t even mentioned someone like Gerardo Hernandez (Gael Garcia Bernal) – whose motives may be murkier than we have led to believe. Or its depiction of the Cuban hotel bombings in 1997 – a wonderful set piece in and of itself in the middle of the film. And on and on.

The first hour of the film works best. That is basically when Assayas is focused on the characters – so even if his narrative is zooming along, we do get to know Rene and Olga and Ana and Juan Pablo a little – even if we don’t know how it’s all going to fit together. There are wonderful cinematic moments throughout – a dance floor sequence for instance, that trains its camera on Armas, and doesn’t look away for a few minutes. The hotel bombings are an example of the kind of tension that Assayas can expertly build.

But in the second hour, as the narrative shoots off in all sorts of different directions, everything becomes muddled – the characters feel more like pawns than people, and everything is far too rushed. The film was picked up by Netflix after its premiere on the fall festival circuit – Venice, TIFF – last year, after which Assayas did go back and re-edit the film in time for the New York Film Festival, given the muted reaction it received at the first two festivals. I almost wonder what Wasp Network would look like if Netflix had been involved from the beginning. They have shown a willingness to let auteurs do their own thing there – from letting Scorsese have The Irishman run three-and-a-half hour, to allowing the Coens to turn Buster Scruggs from an anthology series into a feature, to just letting Spike Lee do whatever he wants with Da 5 Bloods. Perhaps if Assayas had that sort of freedom while making Wasp Network, we would have ended up with another epic masterwork like Carlos – there is enough here to suggest an expanded version would be better. What we have is deeply flawed – some great moments, an interesting setup, and rich source material – all crammed into too small a package to do it justice.

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