Olivier Assayas’s Wasp Network, released on Netflix only last week, seems to have already secured a designation as “minor.” A Netflix sans-theatrical release in the midst of a global pandemic does indeed feel like a death knell that will doom it to footnote-dom, which might have eventually been the case in a fully functioning world; perhaps circumstances only initiated the pulling of the trapdoor lever, expediting its fall to some underworld of B-side auteur films, where it was bound to land anyway. That fate, however, is not a just one. This may not be Assayas operating at the peak of his powers, but there’s no use in denying the thrilling efficiency that propels the overstuffed yet nimble two hours of Wasp Network.
In early 1990s Havana, pilot René González (Édgar Ramírez) defects from Cuba to the United States, leaving behind his wife, Olga (Penélope Cruz), and his young daughter. Once stateside, he begins running rescue missions for sea-stranded defectors with a group of anti-Castro Cuban exiles out of Miami. Only René is not as he appears—he’s a spy sent by the Cuban government to infiltrate groups hostile to national interests, part of a budding network of operatives, organized by Gerardo Hernández (Gael García Bernal), who hope to thwart any would-be aggression on Cuban soil.
The film, adapted from the 2011 book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War by Fernando Morais, explores many of Assayas’s staple preoccupations: the resounding impact of globalization under Western ideology, the question of what it means to enact revolution, intercontinental traipsing, the crosscultural jumble of communication in the modern technological world. His characters often find themselves at the crosshairs of these issues, grappling with the many contradictions they seem to pose. These ideas, employed differently across each of his films, are of course not virtues in and of themselves without considering how they appear, and here Assayas embeds them within an espionage genre film, where their presence is, though obvious, less clearly delineated than as in works like Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) or his previous film, Non-Fiction (2018). Those are talkative films in which characters actively discuss the philosophical components and implications of their concerns; Carlos (2010), which will inevitably be seen as the superior counterpart to Wasp Network due to thematic similarities and shared leading man, gets to be both a film of action and philosophy—in part due to its 5 hour-plus run time. But the characters of Wasp Network are first and foremost men of action. If anything, the verbal philosophizing comes primarily from those in opposition to the spies, a sort of cloak under which we can see René’s beliefs as antithetical to what we’re hearing.
If the characters are men of action, the pacing of the film reflects that: Perhaps too much happens in Wasp Network, and we are occasionally left with glances when a long stare might have been better suited. Regardless of whether the totality coalesces, the editing is so jarringly efficient that scenes move from one to the next with a determined propulsion, even as the film lurches forwards and backwards in time. Within scenes, too, cuts are decisive and expeditious, such as when Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), a suave suit- and Rolex-wearing spy who comes to briefly enjoy the excesses of US culture, swims from Cuba to Guantanamo Bay to request asylum. Assayas shows us quick glimpses of the journey, from Roque’s beachside bus ride, to donning his wetsuit, to midnight swimming, to his arrival upon the rocks of Guantanamo—a brief procedural which on a micro-level reflects the film’s macro-level speed, moving through essential action and emotion without much lingering but with a declarative certainty.
To say there is little lingering is not to say there is little indulgence, and as ever Assayas is unafraid of sex appeal. He shows us movie stars in low-buttoned shirts in the Miami heat, Ramírez often bespectacled with fashionable sunglasses. Ana de Armas, playing Ana Margarita Martinez, gets an extended dance sequence at her wedding’s after party as she tries to lure her new husband, Roque, to the dancefloor—which is certainly a rare moment of lingering—and a topless love scene before Roque, much to her surprise, returns to Cuba. In an age of sexless, corporatized films, Assayas is an antidote. He invariably reveals desire beneath whatever the issue at hand may be: texting and high fashion in Personal Shopper; radicalism, violence and ego in Carlos (as when Carlos places a grenade in the mouth of a woman with whom he’s fooling around); or, as with Wasp Network, espionage. As Maggie Cheung in her leather suit from the filmically reflexive Irma Vep (1996) suggests, desire is inextricable from cinema itself.
Desire is not in this case anywhere close to the end-all, be-all, but merely one avenue in a film with many outshoots, willing, for example, to leave established characters behind to follow a terrorist attack on Havana hotels carried out by anti-Castro groups. Domestic difficulties are similarly present, as both Bernal and Ramírez play men who grapple with the unromantic marital and familial toll of their work—relationships on the line for principles and ideals. For all the questions of revolution, the primary arc revolves around the fluctuating state of togetherness between Cruz and Ramírez. In Carlos, Assayas pulled a vexing and charismatic performance from Ramírez as the international Venezuelan terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal. Here, though less electric, he is a sturdy presence, effortlessly conveying that almost matter-of-fact rationality characteristic of Assayas’s dialogue. The film as a whole is equally direct in mood, though not in structure, where it is discursive.
As detailed in his memoir A Post-May Adolescence (which came out the same year, 2012, he released his semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film Something in the Air), Assayas,13 at the time of the May 68 Paris riots, has long been concerned with the riots’ after effects and how they shaped his worldview. And here, once again, this fascination with the subversion of the current order comes to the fore. Assayas may pit his film’s perspective against U.S. imperialism, but it also makes no bones about depicting Cuba’s failures (e.g., news segments detailing the human rights violations against Castro dissidents, countless references to resource shortages). Assayas has shown us, in this film and others, a world begging for revolution with movements flaring up in fits and starts—some corrupt, some naive and some noble, never knowing when one blurs into the other until it’s too late, all foiled. The world as he sees it is a place where one must decide to what degree they will resist, yet it appears there are only wrong answers—all roads leading to decadence, complacency or failure. In Wasp Network, just as around the globe, a search for the balance continues.
Director: Olivier Assayas
Writer: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Édgar Ramírez, Penélope Cruz, Gael García Bernal, Ana de Armas, Wagner Moura
Release Date: June 19, 2020 (Netflix)
Daniel Christian is a writer and filmmaker based in Columbia, Missouri. In addition to Paste, he has written for Filmmaker Magazine and No Film School. You can follow him on Twitter.