Director Olivier Assayas has made world-class masterpieces, like Irma Vep (1996); he has made solidly routine arthouse fodder, like Something in the Air (2012); he has made films that I think simply do not work, like Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). But one thing he had not made prior to Wasp Network in 2019, or at least not that I've seen, is a film that simply had no reason to exist.

"No reason" is harsh, and arbitrary; does any film have a reason to exist? But in general, it is always possible to see the reasons that Assayas chose to make a movie, and what he hoped his audience would take from it; he is among the most consistently intellectual, curious filmmakers working, having not ever once repeated himself in over a quarter of a century, and while not every one of his features is equally provocative, every one of them does offer a new viewing challenge to solve. Wasp Network still doesn't find the writer-director repeating himself, though it seems very obviously to want us to think about it in comparison to Assayas's 2010 television miniseries Carlos. As far as offering a challenge, the biggest questions I had leaving the film were all on the order of "was I supposed to, like, care about any of that?" and "was I supposed to have learned anything about the immediate post-Cold War era?" and "why was it structured so weird?", and I guess at least the last of those is at least slightly intellectually stimulating.

Wasp Network is based upon a true story, recounted by Fernando Morais in the book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, which Assayas used as the basis for his screenplay. And in order to actually tell you much about that true story, I will need to spoil a secret that the film decides to hang onto until about the midway point, but it has already been spoiled pretty much by every other reviewer, and by the fact that the film even exists, really. So it's the early 1990s, the Soviet Union has just fallen, the United States reigns supreme as the world's only superpower, and Cuba, a former Soviet satellite nation that now has to cope with having, basically, no powerful allies on the face of the planet, is reeling. This is the moment at which pilot René González (Édgar Ramírez) steals a plane and defects to Miami, leaving behind his wife Olga (Penélope Cruz) and his daughter Irma (Osdeymi Pastrana Miranda) to suffer all of the suspicious leers of the neighbors, and the fear of governmental reprisal. In the U.S., René joins a Cuban exile activist group, Brothers to the Rescue, and helps support their anti-Castro work in whatever way possible, including by helping to fly drug-running missions to help finance the organisation. A little while after he arrives, another Cuban pilot, Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), also makes his way to the States, also joins Brothers to the Rescue, and the two men spend a lot of time navigating the life of a political refugee in a supportive community. They work, they relax, Juan falls in love with a woman named Ana Margarita Martínez (Ana de Armas), and marries her.

It's equal parts slice-of-life and historical document, sketching out a particular group of people at a particular moment in time and simply seeing how they cope with the forces of a swiftly-changing world bearing down upon them. It's also so acutely shapeless and totally free from anything resembling narrative momentum that it becomes inordinately obvious that something is going to have to break loose; while Assayas isn't by any means a filmmaker who feels the need to pack dense, complicated plots into every one of his movies, there's still basically not even a movie here. So it's less of a shocking reveal and more of a "well duh" when, a little bit less than halfway through the 123-minute film, Cuban intelligence officer Gerardo Hernández (Gael García Bernal) enters the story and the film very quickly rewinds all the way back through the four years it has thus far depicted, to tell us that René and Juan were both Cuban spies the whole time, part of a team of agents infiltrating U.S.-based anti-Castro groups known as, surprise of surprises, the "Wasp Network". I feel very ambivalent about this revelation: on the one hand, it's awfully nice of the film to finally do something. On the other hand, the rewind flashback is stylistically at odds with literally every single thing that the film has done or will do going forward, all split-screens and punchy music, and the fact that the film has to break itself apart so thoroughly in order to communicate the basic information we need to continue moving forward with the plot is, I think, a pretty clear sign of how thoughtlessly the film has been arranged up to this time.

Also, to be clear, once we know that the main characters are spies, this changes... not much. The film still meanders through scenes that aren't doing anything; just about the best thing about it is that it gives an ironic charge to Cruz and de Armas's performances, since neither of them have a clue about their husbands' secrets. And the lingering queston "so, what do you want me to do with this?" remains peversely unaddressed. Carlos, Assayas's other political thriller about Cold War cloak and dagger shenanigans starring Ramírez, took an enormous amount of time to slowly move us through all of the ins and outs of its story, and its social ramifications, and the unforeseen side effects of characters' decisions. Wasp Network crams just as much narrative complexity as that film had into only a little more than a third of the running time, and for a commanding majority of its length - basically everything that isn't centered on Cruz's character wandering around Havana, fretting - it feels like a crash course in names, dates, and summaries of espionage operations. This doesn't end even when the film is over, and it throws out title cards explaining what happened to every single character of significance after the events shown in the film.

I can, if I am feeling unfathomably generous, stretch far enough to come up with "a reason" for all of this. Maybe Assayas is trying to get at the way that the spying life is exhausting tedium, with the first half of the film about day-to-day life setting us up for the humanity that gets lost in all of the shuffling of details about incredibly pointless spycraft. Maybe it's about how shapeless the world felt after the end of the great ideological conflict that had dominated the planet for more than 40 years, with the aimlessness of the film pointing towards the aimless of that decade where many people earnestly believed we'd arrived at the end of history. In either case, those are readings I'm coming up with much more on the basis of what the film looks like on paper than what the film is like in the act of watching it. As cinematic object, Wasp Network is mostly just a whole lot of stalling en route to a stopping point that feels only a little like a climax (though given how much happens in the film and how little causality some it it has, I am unsure what a climax would even look like). It is studiously neutral on the matter of pro- and anti-Castro forces, such that it doesn't really seem to actually care about anything it's looking at, certainly not enough to bother thing about what happens as a result of the events in its plot. And it's so swept up in political machinations that it has nothing interesting to say about its characters, though at least Cruz (who is much too recognisable, and who knocks the whole movie off its axis) and de Armas are trying to carve emotions out of it, while Ramírez floats along without making much impression; I am reminded how, after Carlos, it seemed like he was going to be a real-deal movie star, and then everything he did after Carlos revealed that he's not actually a very interesting or deep actor. Basically, a film that does nothing well enough to be interesting, and does most things too competently to be an excitingly horrifying misfire. I hope Assayas learned something useful from making it; I am afraid I got nothing out of watching it.