By Annie Iezzi
A real-life drama to rival that of cinema, the story of the Cuban Five in Wasp Network captivated its audience at the New York Film Festival this fall. The film was shaped by Fernando Morais’ nonfiction account of the events, The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, and directed by Olivier Assayas. These talent powerhouses, in addition to the movie’s star-studded cast of Penélope Cruz, Edgar Ramírez, Wagner Moura, and Gael García Bernal, drew quite the crowd to the world premiere of the movie’s final cut. Before the screening, the Walter Reade Theater filled to the brim with film-buffs and commoners like myself, anticipating an impassioned portrayal of not just the political impact, but the human emotion, involved in the arrest of the Cuban Five and its ensuing turmoil.
The film begins in silence. Captions scroll across the screen, situating the audience within the political upheaval of the early 1990’s in Cuba and the United States. There were claims of attacks against Cuba by anti-Castro, U.S. based exile groups that were to be countered by “La Red Avispa,” or the Wasp Network. Members of the Wasp Network, primarily Cuban defectors turned intelligence agents for Cuba, infiltrated CANF, the Cuban American National Foundation and others, to dismantle them from the inside out.
The black screen fades into a bright and hectically colorful Cuban morning in the household of Olga, played by Penélope Cruz. She and her husband, René, prepare their daughter for school, all the while speaking in a tender and rapid-fire Spanish that is the language of the film. The audience is treated to a jovial family atmosphere that is shattered when René defects from the Cuban air force on what would be a normal day of work, flying the plane to the coast of Florida. He makes this jump just as the post-Soviet Union economic collapse is sending shockwaves through his home country, making life not only difficult, but dangerous too. In the ensuing years, Olga seethes with anger and a continuing love for René, who she considers a traitor, while raising her daughter to be compassionate towards him. Olga works tirelessly to move to the United States to reunite her family, only to be blocked at every turn by a suspicious Cuban government.
Now established in Florida, René becomes an undercover agent working for Jose Basulto at the “Brothers to the Rescue” group, one which purports humanitarian aid but actually supports violent acts of anti-Castro terrorism, like hotel bombings aimed at shaking the country’s tourism industry. The organization is hazily defined and funded by covert drug operations, which René is firmly opposed to.
Cut to Juan Pablo Roque, played by Wagner Moura, nearly drowning in his dangerous defection across Guantanamo Bay, a notoriously shark-infested waterway. His good looks and charisma define him, as his allegiance flips between the terrorist groups, the Cuban defectors, and the United States government– for which he is an FBI informant, a position refused by René. Roque’s arc is characterized by his hunger for money and influence, as he marries the beautiful Ana Margarita Martinez in an extravagant wedding, before leaving her and the life they created to return to Cuba.
The importance of these two characters is underpinned by the work of one man: Gerardo Hernandez, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, who covertly runs the Wasp Network, first in Havana, and then in the United States. His introduction comes far later in the film than that of the others, an artistic choice that illustrates the opaqueness of the organizations but seems confusing for the audience.
The exploits of this team come to a head with the monitoring and eventual arrest of all of the intelligence agents, on the grounds that they were conducting intelligence for a foreign country on United States soil. The anguish that this causes, and the trauma weighing on the wives and children of these operatives throughout their trials, is the main thrust of the film. We are witness to Olga’s efforts to shield her daughter from the pain of life without a father. Her relationship with René is torn asunder, and she is forced to leave her baby girl with her grandmother in the United States. A heartbreaking goodbye between a mother and her child, who is too young to know what is happening, is a window into the undue pain wreaked upon the misunderstood intelligence group and their families.
Assayas points to the hypocrisy of the American government, which tolerates terrorist organizations on the grounds that they are ingratiated with the CIA, at the expense of individuals who take the fall. The film warmly portrays these operatives, revealing the minutiae of their lives and traumas, as the cast explained in the press conference that followed the film. He expressed to the audience: “I wanted to try to articulate the human and historical” aspects of the story, in which “individuals [were] lost in the chaos of that time.” To this end, Assayas is successful in inspiring empathy.
The actors, however, never met their real-life counterparts. Cruz testifies that she didn’t meet the real Olga, nor did she try to do so. Her drive in portraying the character was to make sure that she was “treated with respect and from a base of information beyond [my] own interpretation.” Ramiréz agreed, sharing that “it’s about creating a painting, not a photocopy of those characters.” The crew justifies their approach twofold. First, the actors firmly believe that the story told in Wasp Network is outside the scope of any specific character’s essence. Second, the actors felt that they could most accurately develop their characters under the auspice of creative freedom. As an additional note, those portrayed in the film were largely unhappy with the adaptation of their story for the silver screen, so any contact may not have been welcome.
Despite the moral quandary of telling a purposefully hidden story, Assayas divulged that he was “obsessed with being fair,” especially during the editing process. The final cut that debuted at the New York Film Festival was void of many of the facts that previously bogged down the film, but it retained enough historical information to accurately depict its events. This, in his eyes, increased the continuity and fluidity of the film by decreasing the amount of times that the audience was wrenched into a historical perspective. This fairness extends even to the Cuban accents of the actors, which were painstakingly honed to “share the same beat,” in which, “one sentence is one word.”
The entire main cast identifies as Latinx, although none are Cuban, while the supporting cast is comprised entirely of Cuban actors filming in their home country. This authenticity was evident in the shooting of the film, the bulk of which took place on Cuban soil. Even one scene in a jail was shot in the prison Gran Canaria, much to the chagrin of Cruz, who was concerned about bringing a baby into such a dangerous area. “I’m gonna be your mommy for a while,” she told the infant, and it immediately latched on to her, as is apparent in the familial scenes that are interspersed in the historical drama. The actress shares intimate moments with her faux daughter, and the actors confirmed that they triggered real tears from the child’s real parents.
Tears were triggered for many in the audience throughout the course of the film, one which gives a small window into the personal life of the extremely public, and often misrepresented, Cuban defectors known as the Cuban Five.
Annie Iezzi is the Managing Editor of Honeysuckle Magazine and a third-year student at Barnard College of Columbia University, studying English and Political Science and writing in her scarce (and cherished) free time.