WASP NETWORK – Review by Diane Carson

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Wasp Network follows Cuban defectors in Florida.

For decades following the 1950s Cuban Revolution, a volatile struggle ensued between those voluntarily or involuntarily exiled to the U.S., among them some determined to sustain and some to overthrow Fidel Castro’s rule. Several events made headlines; many remain relatively unknown. In Wasp Network, writer/director Olivier Assayas pulls from relative obscurity one complicated, fascinating drama of Cubans escaping to Florida.

Inspired by Fernando Marais’ The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, the intrigue builds from the earliest scenes in 1990s Havana as René González does the nearly unimaginable. An accomplished pilot, he steals his plane to fly to Miami, leaving behind his wife Olga and young daughter Irma. Once René’s action becomes news, Olga and Irma will suffer the shame of his defection. Meantime, René will join operations with other Cuban defectors, flying over Cuban waters to rescue other exiles and, upon occasion, to drop anti-Castro propaganda leaflets over Havana. His life with the “Brothers to the Rescue” becomes increasingly dangerous, especially when the group, needing money, gets roped into weapons and drug smuggling. And, in one horrifying event in 1996, Cuban MiGs shot down two of the group’s Cessnas.

Numerous, often surprising developments follow. No spoilers, but bombs are planted in Cuba to destroy tourism and more defectors, one who swims to Guantánamo, participate in a dizzying sequence of events. At times, the disjointed subplots and zigzagging subterfuges nearly lose coherence as individuals come and go almost randomly. Nevertheless, tension builds to breathtaking revelations.

Director of Carlos, Clouds of Sils Maria, and Personal Shopper, Assayas knows how to guide his actors to exceptional performances. Here, Edgar Ramírez as René, Gael Garcia Bernal as Gerardo, Penélope Cruz as Olga, Ana de Armas as love interest Ana Margarita, and Wagner Moura as Juan Pablo make sensitive duplicity a fine art. The cinematography is gorgeous, proving that beautiful scenes bathed in pastels and sunshine can still hide menacing realities.

Wasp Network requires tolerance of disparate threads that do, by film’s end, weave together in an illuminating historical depiction. Wasp Network is available on Netflix.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.