June 26, 2020

Movie Review: Wasp Network (Netflix - 2019)

Penelope Cruz and the movie poster

The Wasp Network (known in Spanish as La Red Avispa), released by Netflix in the United States last week, depicts a fairly successful Cuban intelligence operation conducted in the Miami area in the 1990s. The effort was focused on collecting intelligence on Cuban exile groups who were planning and conducting operations against the Castro regime. 

Many of us remember the 1996 shoot down of two Cessna 337 Skymaster aircraft belonging to an exile group named the Brothers to the Rescue (Hermanos al Rescate). The group conducted surveillance flights over the waters between Cuba and Florida, providing humanitarian assistance to people fleeing Cuba by sea. Cuba claims that the aircraft at times violated Cuban airspace (with some validity) to drop anti-Castro leaflets over cities on the island. 

The Cuban Air Force was directed to intercept and shoot down the group’s aircraft if they violated Cuban airspace again. The Castro-approved mission was codenamed Operation Scorpion. The intelligence needed to execute the operation – dates, times, and locations of the Brothers to the Rescue aircraft – was to be provided by the Wasp Network. 

It was. On February 24, 1996, a Cuban Air Force MiG-29 (NATO: Fulcrum) successfully intercepted and shot down two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft in international airspace. Despite Cuban claims to the contrary, it was later proven that the aircraft were truly in international airspace. If you are familiar with Soviet/Russian aircraft, you will note that the jets used in the movie were in fact MiG-21 (NATO: Fishbed) fighters – one unarmed. Okay, it’s a movie – we get the idea: jet fighter shoots down unarmed civilian planes. 

Over the years of its existence, the network provided a steady stream of intelligence to Cuban intelligence. They continued to operate until the network was rolled up (that’s the vernacular in the intelligence business) in 1998. 

I will not reveal any more about the movie so as not to spoil it. However, I will offer some comments on the production itself. 

It is very well acted – the cast includes known and talented actors. I like the performances of Édgar Ramírez as René González, Gael García Bernal as Gerardo Hernández/Manuel Viramontez, and of course, Penélope Cruz as René’s wife Olga (and for just being Penélope Cruz). 

This is the story of an intelligence operation, yet there was virtually no tradecraft presented. We caught only glimpses of the training of Gerardo Hernández and his mastery of his legend. The reference to shortwave radio communications between Hernández and his superiors in Havana could have been explored. 

The covert communications system, using numbers stations, is fascinating. Read more about numbers stations – read the link to the Cuban Five – they were part of this network. Note the entry of a transmission from Havana to Hernández that “under no circumstances” were network members to fly on Brothers to the Rescue aircraft on February 24 (day of the shoot down). 

The Cubans have been running intelligence operations in the United States for decades – this is their primary method of communications. (We used to use it as well – virtually all intelligence services did. Why? It works.) 

So how did the group get caught – the 10 remaining in the United States? At least one other member had already re-“defected” back to Cuba and admitted his role in the operation. Another had been arrested for an ill-advised bombing campaign against several hotels in Havana – he remains in a Cuban prison. It was Cuba’s reaction to this bombing operation that led to the exposure of the Wasp Network. 

The Cuban government provided hundreds of pages of evidence about the bombings and the bombers, hoping that the FBI would use the materials to arrest the perpetrators. Much to my satisfaction, they instead used to the materials to determine how the Cubans had obtained the evidence, their sources and methods – which turned out to be the Wasp Network. Good work – that would have been a nice addition to the movie. 

There is so much that happened during the existence of the Wasp Network. It could have made a six hour miniseries. In this format, too much is missing. 

I would recommend it for those interested in intelligence operations, Cuban exile groups, or simply to enjoy the excellent performances of Édgar Ramírez, Gael García Bernal, and of course, Penélope Cruz. Otherwise, it can be a bit tedious and convoluted. 

Watch the trailer (YouTube) here.  Watch the movie (Netflix) here

June 18, 2020

Movie Review: The Siege of Jadotville (Netflix - 2016)

The Siege of Jadotville is a true story of an Irish Army company's combat action in the Congo in 1961. The film is based on Declan Power's book, The Siege of Jadotville: The Irish Army's Forgotten Battle.

The film begins with the assassination of Congo's Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and the outbreak of civil war. The mineral-rich state of Katanga then mounted a succession effort, raising tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union - both coveted the minerals in the state, including uranium needed for nuclear weapons. United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld sent an Irish diplomat to the Congo to attempt to mediate and de-scalate the situation. A year earlier, the UN had established a peacekeeping force - United Nations Operation in the Congo (Opération des Nations Unies au Congo, or ONUC).

Part of the the ONUC force was the 35th Battalion of the Irish Army. The film is focused on a battle between A Company and Katangese Gendarmerie troops loyal to the self-proclaimed Katangese prime minister Moïse Tshombe - Tshombe's troops were led and supported by foreign mercenaries (mostly former French Foreign Legionnaires, at the behest of our favorite French leader, Charles De Gaulle).

The lightly armed 150 Irish soldiers, commanded by Commandant (US major equivalent) Patrick Quinlan, under siege in the town of Jadotville, held off the Katangese assaults for five days as a relief force of Irish, Indian and Swedish troops unsuccessfully tried to reach the Irish company.

The outnumbered Irish company was eventually forced to surrender after ammunition and supplies were exhausted, but not before inflicting heavy casualties on the Katangese troops and their mercenaries. The Irish troops suffered wounds, but none died in the fighting. They were released after a month in a prisoner exchange and returned to Ireland.

The movie addresses quite well the incidents in other parts of the Congo that led to the assault on the Irish troops. It highlights the ineptitude of the UN diplomatic effort and a failure to understand the consequences of deploying "peacekeepers" when there is no peace to keep. What they needed was an intervention force.

The tactical efforts by the Irish, led by Quinlan and Company Sergeant Jack Prendergast, in the defense of their outpost is fascinating to watch - it allowed a force of 150 soldiers to hold off over 3,000 opposing troops. No Irish troops were killed in the fighting, yet they were able to kill over 300 and wound over 1,000 of the enemy.

Recommendation: for most viewers, a good story. For military viewers, an education in leadership and small-unit tactics.

Watch it on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/watch/80041653