By Mary Sollosi
June 19, 2020 at 12:42 PM EDT
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Credit: netflix

Olivier Assayas ought to know a thing or two about infiltration: He directed an American actress to a César Award, after all. Which makes it all the more disappointing that the perceptive filmmaker’s spy drama Wasp Network (now streaming on Netflix) mostly fails to thrill despite its high-stakes, true-life story — and that its starry cast has so much less room for complexity than Kristen Stewart was afforded in Clouds of Sils Maria.

Adapted by Assayas from Fernando Morais’ The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, an account of a group of spies who infiltrated various Cuban-American groups in the ‘90s, Wasp Network opens with the careful defection of Cuban pilot René Gonzalez (Édgar Ramírez, reteaming with Assayas after starring in 2010’s Carlos) to the U.S. following the dissolution of the Soviet Union; he begins to forge a new life for himself in Miami while his wife Olga (Penélope Cruz) and young daughter struggle without him in Havana.

Soon after, another pilot, Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura) defects to Florida as well, and strikes up a romance with Ana Magarita Martinez (Ana de Armas) almost immediately upon his arrival. Though the charming Roque is much flashier than family man Gonzalez, the pair become friends, both working with the anti-Castro Cuban exile organization Brothers to the Rescue — and maybe, too, on some murkier projects.

Just as the various dealings of Gonzalez and Roque start to become too scattered to either piece together or in fact care about, Assayas deploys a secret weapon: Gael García Bernal. In a flashback to four years prior, the actor appears in a role we won’t otherwise spoil (as much as history can be spoiled, anyway), injecting some life into the whole affair with a sharply stylized explanation for what Gonzalez and Roque have really been up to in the film’s first hour.

Wasp Network, which premiered at Venice last year, goes more for breadth than depth, and suffers for packing in too much without letting its extravagantly talented cast bring more to the screen — though they all do well with what they’re given, even if they deserve juicier roles. García Bernal has the least to do; if the film belongs to anyone it’s the pairing of Cruz and Ramírez, whose relationship gives the drama a much-needed emotional center.

The question of what the mission and all of its implications really are becomes less compelling as the plot overwhelms the people carrying it. Assayas doesn’t betray much of a perspective on this episode in history other than the apparent belief that it’s an interesting one, shying away from the passions and politics at the heart of the issue to focus on the convoluted movements of an ever-growing ensemble. The resulting narrative is dense, but ultimately rather bland — especially for the fight over the soul of a country.

But what a country! Visually, the appeal of Wasp Network is undeniable — all warm, colorful, open spaces, elegantly shot and peopled with beautiful actors. The intrigue could have used some of that heat, too. C+

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