Olivier Assayas produced a stunningly idiosyncratic series of works in the 2010s, even by his typically eclectic standards. From the mammoth Carlos to the autobiographical Something in the Air to the cryptic chamber dramas Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper, Assayas seemed to be searching for new forms, new avenues for charting our ever-turbulent present tense. Non-Fiction felt like a palate cleanser of sorts, purposefully small scale and modest, a kind of throat clearing to usher in the new decade. But Assayas sneaked in one more film before the calendar change, premiering Wasp Network first at Venice in the fall of 2019 to almost universal pans before tinkering with the film prior to its screening at the New York Film Festival. I’m not sure what the differences between the cuts are, but the version that has just dropped on Netflix is a narrative mess, a nearly incomprehensible rabble of names, dates and acronyms jumbled together. One of Assayas’ most notable strengths has always been his ability to deftly navigate what could be called the internet age, or what Kent Jones has dubbed ‘the speed of life’ – blending genres, politics, and his own cinematic influences (Bresson, Bergman, Fassbinder) into something that feels fresh and modern. Summer Hours is one of the great films about globalization, but is also a simple family melodrama drawing from a distinctly French literary tradition. Both Demonlover and Boarding Gate use corporate espionage as an entry point to explore dangerous sexual anxieties and the specifically modern, existential loss of self, all wrapped up in a capitalist critique. Wasp Network might charitably be considered a companion piece of sorts to those two films, at least in as much as Assayas is attempting to view world-historical events from the ground level; that is, how geopolitics plays out for the regular people doing the day-to-day work. For whatever reason, he’s simply not up to the task here, displaying no ability to shape this mountain of material into anything approaching a coherent film.
One of Assayas’ most notable strengths has always been his ability to deftly navigate what could be called the internet age, or what Kent Jones has dubbed ‘the speed of life’ – blending genres, politics, and his own cinematic influences (Bresson, Bergman, Fassbinder) into something that feels fresh and modern.
The film begins with pilot Rene Gonzalez (Edgar Ramirez) saying goodbye to his loving wife Olga (Penelope Cruz) and young daughter, hopping on an airplane, and defecting from Cuba to the United States. He’s set up in a apartment in Miami courtesy of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), and quickly segues to becoming a pilot for an anti-Castro group, the ‘Brothers to the Rescue’, who ostensibly run rescue ops for refugees fleeing Cuba for America. This escalates to flying into restricted Cuban airspace to drop pro-democracy, anti-Castro literature, before finally revealing that the ‘Brothers’ organization is a cover for various drug running operations and terrorist bombing campaigns meant to destabilize Cuba’s tourism industry. Concurrently, we are also introduced to Cuban military officer Juan Pablo Roque (played by Wagner Moura), another defector, who begins piloting planes alongside Rene and becomes entangled in the various machinations of the organization. There are other subplots going on here as well, involving the CIA, the FBI, and Roques’ courtship of Ana Margarita (the lovely Ana de Armas, wasted in an underwritten role) and it’s hard to overstate just how bluntly and artlessly this is all presented. Every scene feels too short, every interaction stilted and vague. Eventually, Assayas stops the film cold for an extended flashback that introduces Gerardo Hernandez (Gael Garcia Bernal), followed immediately by an elaborate montage sequence that introduces a bunch of new characters and reveals that Gonzalez and Roque are actually Cuban spies who have only pretended to defect and are being led by Hernandez. Their mission is to infiltrate the ‘Brothers’ organization to learn of terrorist attacks before they happen. It’s also at this point that Assayas opts to include voice-over narration, as if realizing finally that all of this narrative gobbledygook needed some kind of organizing framework. Characters are briefly introduced and then just as quickly abandoned, as large swathes of the story proper are ignored in favor of a focus on Gonzalez’s domestic issues. Roque is given an abrupt send off and is never seen again, a shame as Moura is absolutely electric on screen and is the best part of the film. Wasp Network covers something like 8 years, from 1990 to roughly 1998, but the crawl of time is never appropriately rendered, our handle on its passing only evident in jarring moments like when Olga suddenly becomes pregnant in one scene and is then shown holding a baby in the next. Assayas is too talented a filmmaker to make a completely terrible film; he stages a few adept suspense sequences here, including a real-life aerial dog fight that garnered international headlines, and later a brief detour that follows a bomber placing devices in different Cuban hotels for a simultaneous, coordinated attack. Ramirez and Cruz are fine actors, and they do what they can to bring some genuine emotional heft to Olga’s attempts to gain an exit visa from the Cuban government in order to join Rene in America. But there are no grace notes here, nothing interesting enough to cut through the bloat of the plotting to find the humanity beneath all of this ostensible intrigue. By the time the FBI is arresting Rene and the others for their spying activities, it’s mostly a sigh of relief that the film is nearing its end. Wasp Network is a disappointing misfire from one of our great contemporary directors, and perhaps his first film that feels mostly belabored where his others have always achieved a varied but consistent elegance.
You can currently stream Olivier Assayas’ Wasp Network on Netflix.