Netflix Now: WASP Network (2020) - Reviewed

Photo Courtesy of Film at Lincoln Center

I first learned about the conflicts between the Anti-Castro groups in Miami and the government of Cuba when a professor had me read Joan Didion’s book Miami. It followed the Cuban exiles through the Bay of Pigs invasion, and detailed the way they were cast aside constantly by the American government as they were fighting to free their country. Didion allows the complex and chaotic nature of the conflicts to inform her prose, which often comes across as chaotic. The book made little sense to me, but it introduced me to a narrative that is often glossed over in classrooms trying to cover the Cold War.

The Netflix original WASP Network is similar to Didion’s book. It introduced me to a new aspect of the conflict I was not aware of and did it in such a way that I was simultaneously confused, engaged, and intrigued by the story unfolding in front of me. Director Olivier Assayas lets the story unfold slowly, often letting you wonder how all the pieces come together before bringing them front and center. The network that spied on the Anti-Castro organizations in Miami throughout the 90s is a fascinating tale of espionage, mafia organizations, the US and Cuban government, and all the people who were caught in the middle.

The first half of the film tells the story of three pilots who defect from Cuba to the United States separately, and each join the Cuban American National Foundation. This organization finds them jobs, apartments, and helps them settle in America. After a while, the first of the defectors Rene Gonzalez (Edgar Ramírez) joins Brothers to the Rescue, an organization within the CANF. They fly over the waters between Florida and Cuba to find rafts of refugees attempting to make the trip to Florida. They radio the coordinates to the coast guard, who picks them up safely.

The operations quickly escalate, as the brothers start flying into Cuba airspace, over Havana to drop leaflets to the residents below. They start tracking the Cuban coast guard, and radioing their location to gunmen who shoot at tourists on a Cuban beach. Their trips escalate to running cocaine to Miami in the same planes they were supposed to use to find refugees. The plot moves into a mafia-esque drama, where the exiles work within the semi-legal organization, and rub shoulders with the bosses. There is even a wedding scene when the second exile, Juan Pablo (Wagner Moura), meets the head of CANF, who blesses their union and is photographed with them, in a scene reminiscent of The Godfather.

Drawing on more mafia themes, Juan Pablo’s  relationship with Ana Margarita Martinez (Ana de Armas) always has a sinister tone to it. Similar to Henry and Karen from Goodfellas, the couple find it challenging to balance espionage with married life which leads to conflict. Juan Pablo’s wealth is a mystery to Ana, who questions him about it only to be shut down. She slowly starts to tease out who he truly is over the course of the film, but never really gets to the truth.

The story, and the details that tie everyone together are revealed in a similar way. The movie will introduce details as if we know what the characters are referring to, and a later explanation will clarify their purpose. Some of this leads to a non-chronological, and chaotic storytelling, something that serves to weaken the film at times. At times, however, it allows for subtle details to link characters, leaving the payoff for later in the movie when those moments are in the back of your mind.

This film is an interesting blend of genera’s, and uses this blend to tell a compelling, and true, story. The confusing and chaotic layout of the various spy rings, and Cuban exile organizations is a tall order to portray in a clear and precise manner, as so much of this international fiasco happened behind closed doors of many competing groups. Didion’s book captures this feeling of chaos in the 60s and 70s, and Wasp Network tries to do that for the 90s. Despite some areas where the confusion is genuine, the story is still compellingly told, and serves to portray in film this chaotic time in American history.  

-Patrick Bernas