A review by Glenn Kenny for The New York Times.
The filmmaker Olivier Assayas has worked in such a wide range of modes over the past 12 years — family dramas, an epic biographical treatment, a horror film of sorts, a coming-of-age movie — that one might think there’s no predominant theme that yokes them together.
Nevertheless, a common thread is visible. Many of his pictures show an intense interest in the construction, or reconstruction, of the self, and its relation to the notion of freedom. The title character of “Carlos” broods and preens over his determination to be a revolutionary outlaw hero. The lost heroine of “Personal Shopper,” besides being stuck in a job she hates, is also profoundly unnerved over what her life means without the brother with whom she believed she shared a psychic link. The post-adolescent hero of “Something in the Air” grapples with his relation to radicalism. And so on.
Assayas’s latest picture, “Wasp Network” (streaming on Netflix), looks like his most conventional work, but it also pushes this theme to a dizzying, eventually exhilarating, extreme. Based on the nonfiction book “The Last Soldiers of the Cold War” by Fernando Morais, it opens in 1990 with René González, played by the physically formidable Edgar Ramírez (also the title role in “Carlos”), stealing a plane he normally pilots for sky divers and flying it from Cuba to Miami.
Now a defector, who has left behind his wife, Olga, and a young daughter, he is almost immediately paraded out for a news conference. In perfect English — born in Chicago, he is already an American citizen — René vehemently proclaims, “I had already said goodbye to Cuba years ago.” Describing conditions there, he seethes, “Everything is short … even the sugar is from Russia.”
Back home, Olga, played with quiet strength by Penélope Cruz, works in a monstrous-looking tannery and for a while refuses to answer René’s letters. René allies himself with an anti-Castro activist group and flies out to rescue Cuban refugees trying to get to the United States on rafts.
A little later, Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura, the Brazilian star of the “Elite Squad” films, who can shift from boyish to sinister in the space of a single frame) dons snorkeling gear and swims from Caimanera to Guantánamo Bay, where he defects. The military men there welcome him with a meal from McDonald’s. More overtly macho than René, Juan Pablo, once in Miami, woos and weds a charming innocent, Ana Margarita (Ana de Armas, superb), and starts sporting a Rolex, which he ought not be able to afford.
Who are these guys, really? About an hour in, the movie travels back four years to Cuba and introduces a character played by Gael García Bernal, who, in conversation with government officials, says he’s spent six months “studying my role.” From this point on, it’s best not to reveal too much, because the surprises here are more than story points — they deepen the film’s fundamental questions.
Behind all of it is a historical fact that’s not often discussed in the United States: that during Fidel Castro’s regime, the Cubans still loyal to him saw the privations of daily life not as material issues in and of themselves, but rather as part of a continuing struggle. The revolution was not accomplished, it was ongoing.
There are times in which “Wasp Network” feels like a John le Carré tale drenched in Miami sun, or even a serious-minded “Top Gun” variant. But it’s also a provocative demonstration of how strange life can get when the political and the personal intertwine like roots of a mammoth tree.