Edgar Ramirez, so much better here than in “The Last Days of American Crime” that he seems like an entirely different actor, reunites with his “Carlos” director to play Rene Gonzalez, whom we meet in 1990 in Havana. A pilot for tourist sky divers, Rene leaves for work one day, kissing his wife Olga (Penelope Cruz) goodbye before flying all the way to Miami. Defecting to the United States and leaving his family behind, Rene becomes a major player in a covert organization that patrols the waters between Cuba and Florida, often dropping supplies to defectors on rafts or radioing details about the locations of Coast Guard boats. As a pilot, Rene becomes embroiled in darker elements of the Cuban-American dynamic, and there’s a fascinating subplot about the morally gray areas of revolution. If Rene can help drug smugglers that can finance the anti-Castro revolution, is the crime worth the greater good?
There’s more to Rene’s story than first meets the eye and Assayas doesn’t forget about Olga or the child she’s raising without a father. Throughout the film, he returns to scenes of Olga working hard—in a tannery, as a janitor, at a desk job, etc.—reminding us that none of this is easy. For every revolutionary, there’s someone working multiple jobs to feed their children. And he contrasts this with the other half of his film for at least the first hour, the story of a movie star named Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), who literally swims to Guantanamo Bay in his first scene. Defecting himself, he ends up a pilot for revolutionary causes as well, but he’s got secrets too, and a new wife named Ana Margarita (Ana de Armas) who becomes suspicious of his inexplicable wealth.
If it sounds like a lot for one movie, I’ve barely scratched the surface. “Wasp Network” eventually expands to include multiple double agents, a coordinator played by Gael Garcia Bernal, the Cuban hotel bombings from 1997, and even the CIA’s involvement in all of it. It becomes almost numbing the further that Assayas gets away from his characters and he loses the urgency of it all in the back half in a way that I’m not sure he has before. It almost feels like there’s a longer cut of “Wasp Network” that doesn’t feel so episodic, or rush through events of history as it goes along. When the film allows performers like Ramirez and Cruz the space to build characters, it works, but even they get lost in the hurried narrative of the film, one that’s trying to do so much in terms of history that it’s easy to get confused, and easier to stop caring.