Wasp Network, a political thriller about Cuban espionage, ends with a masterclass in expression from Penélope Cruz. Her face, blotchy and streaked with tears, slides imperceptibly between readings of love and loss. A smile comes first, then a choked sob. She’s doing her best to be strong for her children, but we’re watching a woman faced with the depth of a sacrifice that was not her own choosing.
Cruz plays Olga Gonzalez, whose husband René (Édgar Ramírez), without warning, left behind his family and fled from Cuba to Miami in 1990. There, he declared himself a defector. What Olga doesn’t know is that he’s part of the Wasp Network, a group of state-funded spies who have infiltrated anti-Castro groups within the exile community in America. Soon they discover that Brothers to the Rescue, a humanitarian organisation that helps refugees make the dangerous crossing, has links to the drug trade and to a series of bombings of Havana hotels. The aim is to disrupt the tourist trade and tank Cuba’s economy, crippling Fidel Castro’s rule.
René is later joined in the cause by pilot Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura, star of Netflix’s Narcos). In Miami, they meet fellow exile Ana Magarita Martinez (Ana de Armas), who’s recently escaped a violent relationship. She falls for Roque’s movie-star looks, but his Rolex and $2,000 suits are proof he’s hiding something from her. When she tries to question it, his subsequent threats hang over her head like a dagger. And so, these two women, Ana and Olga, are forced to carry a burden whose true nature they can’t even be privy to.
Director Olivier Assayas offers a political thriller that’s rich in detail, but primarily invested in human cost. It’s exactly what should be expected of the French director, whose past work – including 2012’s Something in the Air and 2016’s Personal Shopper – has shown a deep empathy for those feel sidelined by society. Paranoia is filtered here through the film’s female characters – they may not be the central focus of the plot, but you’re always aware of their souls quietly withering away back home.
The men, meanwhile, execute their orders with dutiful solemnity. González and Roque answer to Gerardo Hernandez (Gael García Bernal), the appointed ringleader – a suitably stern, grizzled presence. Wasp Network is adapted from Fernando Morais’s The Last Soldiers of the Cold War: The Story of the Cuban Five; Assayas’s film stumbles when it comes to plotting out such a vast and complex history. His approach seems to favour treating individual events as snatches of memory. Each time the screen fades to black (as it has a tendency to do), we never know quite where and when in the narrative we’ll be dropped into next. It can be confusing at times.
Made with the full cooperation of the Cuban authorities, Assayas’s film indulges in gorgeous, kaleidoscopic visions of the heat-baked streets of Havana. Yet, though he’s always had the heart of a revolutionary, the director is careful here to keep his tone even and documentary-like. Wasp Network may carefully document what’s politically at stake, but its real concerns lie with the those ready to make impossible sacrifices – for love or country.