Wasp Network review – Cuban-American tensions rise in uneven historical thriller

Netflix’s latest lockdown release comes in the form of the spy thriller Wasp Network, a dramatic look at Cuban-American tensions in the 1990s. 

Adapted by Olivier Assayas from Fernando Morais’ book, The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, the film tells the true story of a Cuban spy ring operating out of Miami in the 1990s. The ring, known as the Wasp Network, attempted to infiltrate anti-Castro terrorist organisations in America in order to thwart their planned attacks on the Cuban regime.

© RT/Features

The film begins with the carefully planned defection of Cuban pilot René Gonzalez (Edgar Ramírez). He steals a plane and flies to Miami, leaving behind his young daughter and wife Olga (Penélope Cruz) in Havana. Meanwhile, another pilot, Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), dons a snorkel and wetsuit and swims to Guantanamo Bay to defect to the USA, receiving a McDonald’s as his welcome. 

For the first half of the film we follow both men as they adjust to life in the States. René wrestles with his conscience over leaving his family to protect his country, while Juan Pablo enjoys the luxuries of capitalism and marries the beautiful Ana Margarita (Ana de Armas) in a lavish ceremony. We also get a glimpse of Olga’s life back in Cuba. With her husband now branded a traitor, she struggles to provide for her young daughter and slaves away in a tannery factory. 

© RT/Features

We are given episodic insights into the lives of the three central characters, but for the first hour of the film they struggle to interlink. Assayas presents a lot of interesting snippets but struggles to find a cohesive storyline amongst them. The result is a film that feels disjointed, at least for the first half. There also seems to be about a dozen factions at work within the narrative and we don’t quite know who is on which side. Although this becomes important as we venture into the second half, for the first half of the film this creates a frustrating lack of fluency.

Assayas tries to tackle too much. He takes on too many plotlines, uneasy alliances and a uncertain timeline that darts between continents at varying speeds. It’s too big a scope. He is saved by the fact that the source material is fascinating and keeps the viewer hooked. But one can’t help thinking that such rich source material would be more suited to a television series, where it can be given the time it needs to unfold. As Assayas packs two seasons’ worth of content into two hours, it’s no wonder that it feels rushed and overambitious.

© RT/Features

That said, Assayas redeems himself with the wonderful performances he elicits from his cast. Cruz plays Olga with nuanced strength and despite minimal screen time, she remains a standout of the film. Likewise, Ana de Armas proves her star quality once again, with a memorable turn as the innocent, concerned wife of Juan Pablo, managing to add surprising depth to an otherwise superficial character. 

Ultimately, this film is a highly intriguing look at Cuban-American tensions in a historical period that often goes overlooked. Many of us are aware of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 60s, but how many of us know how those tensions carried through into the 90s, culminating in the hotel bombings of 1997? Despite an overly ambitious scope and fragmented first half, Assayas does well to conclude the film with a dramatic third act that has you hooked until the final scene. With such an interesting premise though, it’s a shame that this story had to be confined to a film’s mere two-hour runtime. 

Wasp Network is streaming on Netflix.