When dramatic ambiguity becomes a muddle, the best of talents can be defeated. The names attached to “Wasp Network,” a fact-based thriller arriving as a Netflix original movie, are stellar: Penelope Cruz, Gael Garcia Bernal (“Mozart in the Jungle”), Ana de Armas (“Knives Out”), and Edgar Ramírez (“American Crime Story”). Writer-director Olivier Assayas (“Summer Hours,” “Clouds of Sils Maria”) is one of the signal talents of his generation of French filmmakers.
Yet this movie about a decade-long plot by Cuban spies to infiltrate Miami-based anti-Castro organizations never coheres on screen, perhaps because Assayas isn’t telling one story here but too many. The material might have been better suited to a miniseries like the director’s “Carlos” (2010), which starred Ramírez as terrorist Carlos the Jackal, but even in that form it might be too diffuse.
To its credit, “Wasp Network” works hard and long to avoid white hat/black hat moralizing, and we’re an hour in before we understand the full nature of the Cuban plan. Before then, we’ve followed easygoing pilot Rene Gonzalez (Ramírez) as he defects by biplane to the United States in the early 1990s, reluctantly leaving behind wife Olga (Cruz) and their young daughter (Osdeymi Pastrana Miranda). He finds employment and a supportive community among Miami’s Cuban exiles, including a fixer (Leonardo Sbaraglia) who involves Rene in both humanitarian piloting missions and more dubious business.
The historical backdrop, sketched in willy-nilly, is one of right-wing US-based Cuban groups like the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) bankrolling efforts to topple the Castro regime through terrorist attacks on the island’s resort hotels and beaches while financing their activities through a Central American cocaine pipeline. Eventually we come to understand that Rene is part of an infiltration mission, overseen by a smooth-talking leader named Manuel (Bernal) and including another, more cavalier defector named Juan Pablo (Wagner Moura).
A lot of “Wasp Network” is given over to the romance of this last character with Ana Margarita (de Armas), a beautiful Miami socialite, including a wedding sequence that goes on at length for no discernible reason. More compelling is the drama between Rene and Olga, as she angrily struggles to accept that her husband isn’t a traitor to the Revolution but a hero.
Where are the Americans in all this? Playing both sides against the middle in the form of FBI agents who gladly use the spies’ information while at the same time bugging their apartments. The feds are just one more piece of a jigsaw puzzle that “Wasp Network” keeps reshuffling, hoping a larger picture will come together. It doesn’t, despite affecting performances from Ramírez and Cruz and despite director Assayas’s eccentric way with soundtrack choices. I never expected a song by 1980s cult-rockers the Feelies to gin up suspense in a movie about 1990s Cubans, but it works.
Unfortunately, not enough else does. The thrill of watching an Olivier Assayas movie is that you often have no idea where it’s going next. This time out, it seems, neither does he.
Written and directed by Olivier Assayas. Starring Edgar Ramírez, Penelope Cruz, Gael Garcia Bernal, Ana de Armas. Available on Netflix starting June 19. In English and Spanish, with subtitles. 127 minutes. Unrated (as R: language, nudity, sexual situations, violence).