Entertainment

Netflix's Sprawling Spy Movie 'Wasp Network' Is Fascinating, But Takes On Too Much

Penélope Cruz, Ana De Armas, and Gaël Garcia Bernal star in this social studies lesson that highlights crucial historical moments of Cuban-American relations in the '90s.

wasp network, netflix
Netflix

Traveling back to the ‘90s through cinema is almost always a welcomed adventure, and Netflix’s newly released Wasp Network is no exception. Written and directed by Olivier Assayas (who won the Best Director award at Cannes for 2016's Personal Shopper), the political thriller is a nuanced period piece that gives viewers a front row seat to the tense relations between Cuba and the United States during the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. Mainly set between Cuba and Miami, the international epic is a swirling social studies lesson that highlights crucial historical moments, Cuban-American terrorism, and the titular government-sanctioned spy network -- the Wasp Network.

For those unfamiliar with the 1990s espionnage ring, La Red Avispa, a.k.a the Wasp Network, consisted of several Cuban undercover operatives -- most notably the Cuban Five -- who feigned defection from their country in order to infiltrate some of the US-based exile organizations in South Florida that had been suspected of terrorist attacks against Cuba. Even if you have no clue about anything that you just read, you’ll definitely be more up to speed by the end of Wasp Network.

The film portrays a vast array of historic figures, from Gerardo Hernandez (Gaël Garcia Bernal) and Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura) to Salvadoran terrorist Raul Ernesto Cruz Leon (Nolan Guerra) and anti-Castro militant Luis Posada Carilles (Tony Plana), but its most rewarding moments come from focusing on Cuban Five intelligence officer René González (Édgar Ramírez) and how his dedication to his country impacts his family.

His decisions, however valiant, lead him to abandon his wife, Olga (Penélope Cruz), and daughter, Irma (Osdeymi Pastrana Miranda), in a country that denounces him as a traitor, causing resentment within his family. Their subsequent struggle to reunite both physically and emotionally is one of Wasp Network’s most intriguing plot lines, but it -- like much of the most interesting story elements -- still takes a backseat to the film’s world-building efforts.

As with other period pieces, the film doesn’t shy away from gorgeously depicting the era in which the story takes place. The vivid hues of Miami and Havana architecture, as well as the distinct ‘90s fashion flanking Wasp Network’s stars, contribute to its visual appeal. With sweeping shots and dramatic zooming, the camera work is just as stylish, and the integration of authentic archival footage featuring the likes of Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro drives home the ‘90s aesthetic. 

However, the critique that period pieces suffer from leveraging style over substance unfortunately applies to Wasp Network as well. Whether it’s the limited development of characters like Hernandez and Ana Margarita-Martinez (Ana De Armas) or the non-linear storytelling, the film often settles for portraying a foggy recollection of how things really played out during the decade-long intelligence effort.

wasp network, netflix
Netflix

It’s a difficult story to decipher, and although it could use a bit of trimming, the two-hour ride is mostly compelling, from the fallout of Roque and Margarita-Martinez’s tumultuous relationship to the nail-biting sequence where Cruz Leon bombs Cuban resorts. Even the fact that Wasp Network is able to incredibly lay out its biggest twist -- which is heavily hinted at in its own trailer and completely spoiled by history itself -- is commendable and a testament to the film’s ability to layer suspense and build momentum through such a sprawling story.

Netflix’s Wasp Network is a glossy introduction to the 1990s Cuban intelligence efforts in Miami, full of dramatic flourishes and gripping moments. Although its hazy storytelling hinders it from being the thrilling historical deep dive that it could have been, the film shines in its ability to entertain while also pique one’s interest enough to inspire further learning about the Cuban Five and the complex and strained relations between Cuba and the United States.

Yet, perhaps even more impressive is Wasp Network’s crafty way of challenging perspective. In addition to recreating real-life events, the pot-stirring drama constantly shuffles the audience’s understanding of who the ‘good guys’ are, which in turn opens the floor for debates around economic ideologies, patriotism, and waging revolution. With America currently facing a revolution of its own, Wasp Network is a timely political thriller that offers a sleek, captivating, and thought-provoking look to the past.

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Joshua Robinson is a contributor to Thrillist.