Food: We ate at The Smith last night to pregame the film, as it was finally less full of overflow crowds from the festival. I enjoyed a cocktail called the Midtown Manhattan No. 2, which was smooth, boozy and drinkable, similar to the traditional cocktail, Old Fashioned. I ordered the Burrata dish, which came with slow roasted tomatoes, baby arugula, and garlic ciabatta bread. It was incredible.
Film: There are not enough mainstream pictures – documentary or otherwise – about Cuban politics and the relationship between Cuba and the United States. Even less if you don’t count “Scarface” (and considering many of the “Cuban” immigrants seen in the beginning are Mexican, and it’s mostly about Miami druglords, I think it is safe to say we don’t). That being said, a film that is diving into the intricate espionage affairs between Cubans and Americans is going to require some explanatory heavy-lifting to get the audience caught up.
“Wasp Network” is the true story about the Cuban Five – a team of Cuban intelligence officers living in Miami who were arrested in September of 1998 and convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage, conspiracy to commit murder, acting as an agent of a foreign government, and other illegal activities according to the United States. They were designed to observe and infiltrate Cuban-American groups (such as Alpha 66, the F4 Commandos, the Cuban American National Foundation and Brothers to the Rescue). Though the film is about this, I had to gather many of the details from post-screening online research, as it was not overtly clear from the film. This is not the fault of the filmmaker, necessarily, but it is the result of incredibly detailed content forcibly squeezed into a two hour film. This is another New York Film Festival debut that would have been more digestible in the format of a mini series, but when director Olivier Assayas was confronted about this prospect (doing it similarly to his acclaimed “Carlos”), he “never felt the urge.”
The film was not unwatchable. It was engaging, vibrant and the characters were all compelling in their own right. But, it tried to focus on too many things at once. The most gripping piece of “Wasp Network” was not the politics of it, but the affect it had on the families of those involved. It starts out showing a loving family having breakfast together in the morning. We see René González (Edgar Ramírez) and his wife, Olga Salanueva (Penélope Cruz), who is braiding their daughters hair, as they say quick goodbyes and González rushes out for a normal day at work. Only it is not a normal day. We soon find out, once he is televised from the U.S. that he has commandeered a flight and escaped Cuba to go live in Miami, Florida. He was born in Chicago, and is, therefore, a U.S. Citizen. He is tired of Cuba’s limited resources, and he wants a new life. No mention of his wife and daughter, Irma.
While in Miami, González is linked up to another man, Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), who has just swam from Cuba to Guantanamo Bay to seek refuge in America, claiming that he thought Cuban government would not last through the fall of the Iron Curtain, and he wants a new life in the United States. He charms a beautiful young woman, Ana Margarita (played by Ana de Armas), and seems to be living a lush life. It is clear later that he is both a Cuban spy, but also working as an informant to the U.S. FBI, and collecting checks from both parties. We also meet Gerardo Hernandez (Gael Garcia Bernal) who is leading the Cuban operation.
These characters are all shown, but not necessarily introduced. Halfway through the film, in what is either a twist in the story-line or an attempt to eliminate confusion, a voiceover is spliced in that explains each characters presence in the story. The film jumps through time and place, barreling through years of complicated expeditions, and numerous plots. The intention behind this was likely to create a more politically balanced piece, but doing so over-saturated the plot.
Ultimately, it is not as important to dissect all of the threads of the story itself, but to focus on the parts that worked. Our prominent character, René González, struggles to be the valiant patriot to his country, while ultimately, choosing to sacrifice his close-knit family weighs heavily on him throughout the film, and this propels the film. Cruz convincingly portrays a wife’s convoluted feelings of love, devotion and betrayal as she wrestles with how to do right by her daughter. Assayas could have better served the film by foregoing each and every relevant event in detail, and zeroing in on these personal hardships within the family instead. Highlighting a smaller number of characters, and leaning into their personal circumstances and point of views would have elevated the impact of the events of the story in a more memorable way.