The festival circuit produces a plethora of acclaimed works, often being viewed as the starting point for a film’s journey to Oscar gold. While these events accentuate the quality of certain projects, others get lost in the crowded shuffle, suffering from divisive reactions and niche appeal. That’s where writer/director Olivia Assayas’ latest Wasp Network comes in, belatedly released on Netflix after a lukewarm 2019 festival run. While its imperfections are apparent, the film still displays a plethora of noteworthy qualities.
Set amidst Fidel Castro’s reign in Cuba, Wasp Network follows Rene Gonzalez (Edgar Ramirez), a pilot who unexpectedly leaves his wife Olga (Penelope Cruz) to work as a spy in an anti-Castro organization. The narrative follows Rene’s role in the Cuban Five, who worked to infiltrate US-based groups fighting against Cuba.
As a pseudo-cloak-and-dagger spy caper, Assayas craftsmanship indulges in its lush setting. Every frame is handsomely shot, contrasting its two settings effectively while emanating an impressive sense of scale. The aerial sequences majestically display the high-flying stakes of each mission, shot with precision and clarity while embracing a grounded approach.
Where most historical re-tellings offer a dry regurgitation of factoids, Assayas enriches Wasp Network as an intimate meditation on sacrificial agents operating on the ground floor of major change. The writer/director places audiences in the isolated perspective of Rene and his contemporaries, exploring the unwavering commitment and lingering pains from their detached lifestyle. It’s refreshing to see a spy narrative depict the less-heralded elements of the position to further humanize its central figures.
Instead of delineating obvious judgments, Assays lets his characters live and process their murky state. This complexion gives Wasp Network’s cast intriguing roles to explore. Edgar Ramirez’s subdued delivery fits the role of Rene seamlessly, confidently shrouding the character’s deeply-felt longing for familial bonds. Penelope Cruz is the standout of the bunch, displaying a whirlwind of emotions as she tries to piece things together amidst her husband’s departure. Veteran character actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Wagner Moura round out the cast effectively, with Moura especially sinking his teeth into the narrative’s most deceptive persona.
Wasp Network is aesthetically pleasing and thematically-promising, yet the film suffers substantially from its overly-ambitious nature. After a slow-burn first hour, the latter half finds Assayas trying to encompass a wide array of characters and pertinent information, ultimately over-stuffing the narrative framework. Cuba and America’s political strife is too complex to constrain into one 2-hour film, with the project’s aspirations likely being a better fit for the mini-series format where dynamics can properly render.
Despite its inability to reach grander heights, The Wasp Network offers an assured portrait of a largely unheralded chapter in the Cuban Revolution’s history.
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