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Penelope Cruz and Gael Garcia Bernal write a star in Kobe’s spy film by French director Olivier Assias, a magician but also a visionary, writes Nicholas Barber.

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Olivier Assayas’s vibrant, ingeniously structured, tragicomic Wasp Network joins the ranks of essential films about international espionage, partly because it refuses to behave as such films normally do. Adapted from Fernando Morais’s book, The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, it is a gripping true story set at a time when the Berlin Wall had fallen and many assumed that Fidel Castro’s Communist regime in Cuba would fall shortly afterwards. The fact that so much of it is shot on location in bustling, crumbling Havana is just one reason why it all seems so authentic.

It begins, in 1990, with a burly pilot, René González (Edgar Ramirez), kissing his loving wife Olga (Penélope Cruz) and daughter goodbye one morning in their Havana flat. He’s got to take a couple of parachutists up for a sky dive, but he’ll be home in time for dinner – or so he says. In fact, in the first of the film’s countless twists, he nips into the control tower, disables the radios, and flies his small plane across the ocean to Miami. Leaving his family behind was painful, he tells the US press, but he couldn’t bear the privation in Cuba any longer. Indeed, he soon hooks up with an anti-Castro organisation devoted to helping fellow defectors, and uses his piloting expertise to rescue refugees who are struggling through the waves on rafts.

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