(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s been a long time since the Latin American Cold War. Maybe not long enough, judging by the fury over French director Olivier Assayas’s new film “Wasp Network,” inspired by the real story of a Cuban spy ring operating in the U.S. in the 1990s.
Launched last month on Netflix, after the coronavirus forced the producers to cancel a movie theater debut, the feature film has reignited ideological passions across the Florida Straits. The vociferous right-wing Cuban diaspora in Miami has led a petition drive #RemoveWaspNetwork (18,000 signatures as of July 2) for Netflix to take down the film. Many left-wing enthusiasts, by contrast, have lit up social media with their encomiums to revolution and anti-imperialism. “Seen. Heroes. Huge Film,” Spain’s Vice President Pablo Iglesias tweeted July 1.
José Basulto, the exiled Cuban impresario who inspired one of the script’s homonymous central characters, said he’s weighing legal action for alleged calumnies. One of the original snitches, Juan Pablo Roque, who defected by swimming to Guantanamo Bay, called the story “shit”; the woman he betrothed, hoodwinked and abandoned in Miami wished the picture a “quiet death.” Not that the island regime’s boosters were overjoyed: It was hardly a “manifesto” for “the Cuban cause,” sniffed the official government mouthpiece, Granma.
In fact, “Wasp Network” has something to displease just about everyone. In his meandering and often rococo rendering of the tale of the Cuban Five, the Castroite intelligence operatives who infiltrated Miami’s rabidly anti-communist Cuban exile community, Assayas (“Personal Shopper,” “Summer Hours”) strains not to take sides. Start with the opening story card, which reads like a disclaimer. “Cuba has lived under a Communist regime since 1959. It is subjected to a brutal embargo imposed by the United States. This has resulted in tremendous hardship for the population. Many Cubans fled an authoritarian state and settled in Miami where many militant groups fight to free Cuba.”
Duplicitous gringo lawmen. Zombie communist apparatchiks. Right-wing zealots and criminals posing as Cuba libre humanitarians. Fidel Castro playing Fidel Castro. Pick your slimeball, this movie has them in all shades of tropical pastel.
Assayas’s painstakingly ecumenical treatment of the messy historical context — a hex on all their ideological houses — is both the film’s charm and curse. Its talented cast includes some of the biggest names that appear on the Latin American screen: Penelope Cruz, Edgar Ramirez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Ana de Armas and Wagner Moura. Yet all this star power is dimmed by a tale riven into subplots and diversions — from rescuing boat people to running terrorist missions, Cuban double agents trying to game the FBI as it games them, Central American mercenaries fueled by drug money. It might have worked better broken up into a series. Jammed into 128 minutes, what could have been a taut political thriller turns into a piñata of Cold War cliches.
For all its ambitious historicizing, this movie works best when it zooms in. While the plot hews to the fate of the spies, the compelling performances come from those they step on in the line of duty and glory. Indeed, the most grievous betrayals are not to flag and country, but to home and family.
When Olga Salanueva (played sublimely by Penelope Cruz) learns years later that her fugitive husband Rene Gonzalez (Edgar Ramirez) was not a “gusano” — a traitor — after all, but a patriot who abandoned her and their daughter in Cuba as part of a secret mission to infiltrate anti-Castro zealots in Miami, the wave of hurt, relief and outrage that hits her is almost excruciating to watch. And try not to wince as Ana Margarita (Ana de Armas) tumbles masterfully from blissful Miami bride to jilted dupe, discovering from a television newscast that her furtive defector husband Roque (Wagner Moura) has defected back to Havana, and that what he really misses about the U.S. is his Jeep Cherokee.
It’s telling that the current fury over “Wasp Network” misses the larger tragedy it exposes. Six decades after the Cuban revolution, Latin America still seems hostage to its cant and stuck in a negative ideological feedback loop. Even as the region faces a deadly pandemic and economic collapse, partisan grievants in leadership positions remain stupidly polarized over yesterday’s conceits — right-wingers bashing communists without communism, or nostalgic leftists waxing over bygone companeros who captured rents and institutions in the name of revolution.
“Latin American peoples are going to stand tall again,” Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez commiserated last week in a video conference with former Brazilian president and Workers Party icon Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Both rued the fading Pink Tide of left-wing leaders and vowed a triumphant revanche. “We are going to rebuild the Patria Grande (the great fatherland), and we will recover that dignity that we had,” Fernandez said.
The revolution, however, will not be Zoomed. “The Wasp Network” doesn’t settle any of the woolly Cold War scores it evokes. But when it chooses to focus on the victims of that conflict’s overheated slogans and tangled schemes, it produces what passes for a win in these conflicted times.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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