Olivier Assayas’ Wasp Network marks a dramatic shift in tone and scale from Non-Fiction, his previous film. Whereas Non-Fiction was largely interpersonal and domestic, focused on the relationship between a small number of couples, Wasp Network offers a sprawling, peripatetic vision of the Cuban expatriate community in Miami in the early 1990s. Basing his screenplay on Fernando Moiras’ The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, Assayas focuses on two organisations – the Cuban American National Foundation, also known as CANF, and Brothers to the Rescue, both of whom were populated by Cubans who managed to escape to Florida.
The CANF and Brothers to the Rescue engaged in three main types of activities. First, they flew over the Gulf of Florida and helped rescue, guide and provide supplies for Cuban immigrants arriving by boat. Second, they funded their operations with drug dealing, zipping all over the Caribbean in light aircraft to make pickups and drop-offs. Thirdly, and most notoriously, they engaged in anti-Cuban terrorism, bombing a trio of hotels in Havana, and prompting a reprisal attack from the Cuban air force, who shot down two of their planes in international air territory in 1996, prompting an investigation by the American government.
All three of these activities involve air travel, setting the scene for a film that spends much of its time in the sky, which plays well to Assayas’ taste for border crossings and porous thresholds. Lots of the action converges around the 24th parallel, the point where American airspace becomes Cuban airspace, which Assayas tends to dwell on how Cubans chart the fluid zone between their country and American soil – most dramatically, for one character, by snorkelling through shark-infested waters to seek safe harbour at Guantanamo Bay. While there are discrete characters and historical figures, they tend to be absorbed into the broader ambience and texture of the film, which brilliantly evokes the fleeting, under-the-radar communication that was occurring continuously between Cuba and Florida during this period.
To that end, Assayas cuts quite vertiginously between Miami and Havana, evoking capitalism and communism reaching out to contemplate each other across the Gulf of Florida. With the Soviet Union falling early in the action, the Gulf is the last threshold between capitalism and communism in the western world – and the last point anywhere on the planet where you could come up against the first wave of communism that the Soviet experiment produced. Wasp Network is fascinated with this threshold, and the way in confounds capitalist and communist mindsets, continually placing us in situations where our allegiance is muddled.
This is perhaps clearest in the way that the CANF and Brothers to the Rescue are represented. On the other hand, they’re anti-communist – as dedicated to the overthrow of Fidel Castro as the staunchest of American Republicans. On the other hand, they’re terrorists, and deliberately target hotels and beaches in Havana that are popular with American tourists, as if pitting themselves against the position that Cuba occupied in the American imaginary as much as the country and regime itself. Seeeking refuge on American soil to engage in an anti-communist terrorism that fulfils many of America’s own fantasies about Cuba at this moment, they tread a fine line between anti-communism and pro-capitalism that is never completely resolved. Instead, we’re left in a provisional zone between communism and capitalism that can’t completely identify with either, but can’t quite reject either, like the Gulf of Florida itself.
Despite being a period piece, then, Wasp Network often feels like a film about a present moment when the capitalist-communist dichotomy is breaking down under increasing pressure to socialize the world’s failing capitalist states – especially the United States. Rather than refusing to imagine communism from the vantage point of capitalism, Assayas uses the Gulf of Florida to engender a fluid curiosity about the Cuban experiment that is never quite contained by the characters, events or historical situations that his film describes and depicts.
For that reason, Wasp Network is perhaps closer in spirit to Something in the Air than any of Assayas’ previous films – part of his ongoing effort to reckon with how the spirit of ’68 and the radical left of the post-war generation has seeped into his own cinematic style. He tends to shoot events as if they’re part of recent living memory, or part of general cultural awareness, which imbues them with an immediacy that a more “historical” treatment might not achieve. No doubt, that immediacy comes with a certain opacity, especially since Wasp Network unfolds as a palimpsest of fictional recreations, documentary-style expositions and news broadcasts, culminating with an interview with Castro about the Brothers to the Rescue.
Yet that opacity is also part of Wasp Network’s power, since the density and complexity of the film works to evoke a feeling above all – the feeling of communism as a possibility that’s both domestic and exotic as the prospect of Havana to Miami, or of Miami to Havana for that matter. While we do get to know individual characters in Assayas’ vision, the brilliance of his film lies in how fluidly and provisionally he suspends us in this space – part sea, part air – so that we never quite feel grounded in a history that forecloses the possibilities of the future.
That makes the events of Wasp Network good contenders for a television series, especially since the action is often quite compressed and doesn’t find a broader shape until halfway through, after the two Brothers to the Rescue aircrafts are shot down over the Gulf. Yet the film already has that television sprawl and expanse built into it – in fact, that combination of a televisual scale with a cinematic length is parts of its originality, making it a peculiarly pregnant release to watch on Netflix, where most audiences will see it during the pandemic. And the film arguably weakens when it does find a shape, and focuses more on a couple played by Edgar Ramirez and Penelope Cruz, since the texture of the first half – fluid yet dense – is what marks this as Assayas, who, like the pilots, “doesn’t respect the rules of aeronautics.”