John Bleasdale Venice

Venice 2019: Wasp Network review

★★★☆☆

French director Olivier Assayas returns to the Venice Lido with Wasp Network, a tale of spies, politics and refugees in a mid-1990s Cuba and Florida which is as undecided on its tone as it is on its politics.

Rene Gonzalez (Edgar Ramirez) seems to have a perfect life. His wife Olga (Penélope Cruz) is beautiful, they have a young daughter and he flies planes. But one day he kisses it all goodbye to fly under the radar and over the short stretch of sea to Miami wherein a televised press conference he vents his frustrations with the Castro regime and announces his intention to stay in the US, abandoning his wife and being branded a traitor back home.

He quickly fits into the Cuban exile community and is soon flying missions to rescue and guide home others fleeing the regime. He is soon joined by Roque (Pablo Escobar himself, Wagner Moura), who escapes Cuba by swimming the shark-infested waters to Guantanamo Bay. He dines on a Big Mac, closing his eyes in beatific ecstasy. He fits into the community well, marrying local girl Ana (Ana de Armas) and making so much money that he can afford a Rolex and mobile phone (remember when that denoted Miami Vice style coolness and dodgy prosperity?).

But everything is not as it seems. The FBI requires informants on the illegal activities of the exiles who quickly use their pilots to aid the drug trade, always with the excuse of funding the struggle to free Cuba. It is a decentered world of betrayal and double-if-not-triple-dealing. It’s difficult to discuss without revealing spoilers. Suffice it to say that not everyone is who they seem to be and things begin to unravel when a part of the exile community decide to resort to terrorism.

Assayas has been here before in perhaps his strongest work the TV miniseries Carlos. There is a hint of the same feverish activity. People doing things, in and out of cars, flying aeroplanes, so obsessed with their secret roles and political missions that they flatten themselves out as human beings and lose the very things that they were fighting to protect. It also means that characters become less interesting as they are used up by the plot and thrown away – like Roque – or turn up late to the party and have to be worked in, like Gerardo Hernandez (Gael García Bernal), another would-be defector. And yet the cast is so good and the rhythm is as vibrant and lively as the Cuban streets that we get to see.

Some real news footage is thrown in to give us a sense of the contemporary importance and urgency of what is unfolding. But the fascinating true story – the film is based on Fernando Morais’ The Last Soldiers of the Cold War: The Story of the Cuban Five – is muddied and Assayas, like his characters, loses the sense of what they are doing and for what reason. It might be that there’s a meatier version of the film – a Carlos-style miniseries perhaps – but as it stands, shifting between a lighthearted caper and more consequential political tragedy, Wasp Network is an entertaining fumble.

The 76th Venice Film Festival takes place from 28 August-7 September.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty