Venezuelan terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, known as “Carlos the Jackal,” taken at a Paris courthouse in November 2004
CARLOS – Made for French TV A-
France Germany (333 mi) 2010 ‘Scope d: Olivier Assayas shortened version (165 mi)
Ultimately I realized that the disconnected images I had of Carlos had an interesting, even fascinating connection that somehow paralleled the evolution of Western leftism in those years. So I felt it was the fate of one man and, in a certain way, the story of one generation, plus a meditation on time, history, fate and issues more universal than the specific history of Carlos.
—Olivier Assayas to The New York Times
—Olivier Assayas to The New York Times
This 5 ½ hour French made-for-TV biopic of a famed international terrorist from the 70’s is divided into 3 sections with no break between sections 1 and 2, an intermission at 3 ½ hours coming after section 2, and the credit sequence coming only at the end, so this is something of an endurance test for the audience. Without question, section 2 is the strongest and could easily stand alone, while section 3 is the weakest, as the tightness of the film falls apart and becomes sluggishly slow and even indifferent, reflecting the state of mind of a man who is no longer relevant in an ever changing world. Édgar Ramírez, onscreen for nearly every shot, plays Carlos, whose cover as a Peruvian playboy suits him perfectly even though he’s a Venezuelan, the child of Marxist parents who had their son educated in Moscow until he was thrown out of school for unruly behavior. While his political sympathies always favor the Palestinian cause, his revolutionary sentiment is on the side of all oppressed people who must overcome the systematic capitalist inequities imposed by the imperialist powers on poorer nations insuring the world’s resources stay in the hands of the most wealthy nations, which reflects a 60’s mindset when there were various student and radical organizations around the world spouting similar rhetoric.
This was during the Vietnam War when the United States was seen as an interloper, where the CIA’s political agenda against communism led the nation to interfere in another country’s determination of its own future, much like the recent failed Bush era agenda against radical Islam which led the nation to actually invade Iraq without provocation, hoping to alter the balance of democracy in the region. In each case, the American intervention led to the opposite of its intended effect, as it drove any hopes of democracy out of the region altogether, allowing radical movements that rail against Americanism to rise to power. Similarly, the leftist student demonstrations of the 60’s that tried to stop the war and advocate for racial justice, which included the violent terrorist bombing acts of the Weathermen, the armed struggle of both the Black Panthers and the Indian AIM movement, eventually led to a right wing law and order crackdown, creating instead a much more self-centered and conservative society. What this suggests is how hard it is to positively influence history, despite one’s best intentions.
While none of this historical backdrop is included in the film, this is nonetheless an integral theme of the film, as the terrorist acts on display rose out of the disgruntled radical movements of the 60’s and 70’s, feeling they didn’t go far enough, including a Communist offshoot of the radical Red Army Faction in Germany known as the Baader-Meinhof group that simply fell in love with armed guerrilla warfare. Originally using a Communist inspired revolutionary tone to their actions, they soon veered off script whenever the moment served them. Similarly, Carlos was soon justifying his own wayward actions, claiming he had to improvise on the ground based on what knowledge he had, quickly using mafia style assassinations, which certainly lost whatever sympathy he might otherwise have generated. Carlos ended up becoming more of an incendiary mercenary for hire, selling himself to the highest bidder, with a tendency to create a bloodbath of terror and chaos, and with it international headlines, becoming a terrorist rock star in the process rather than a man discreetly carrying out his intended mission. Middle East organizations that initially hired him for his bold plans quickly distanced themselves from him as he was too much of an uncontrollable loose cannon.
This film documents some of his more legendary acts, spending one entire episode (Part 2) on perhaps his most audacious mission, where in 1975 Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, though some evidence points to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, provided the intelligence, the weapons, and the financing, as after a fierce firefight he kidnaps a group of oil-rich OPEC ministers during their annual meeting in Vienna, thinking they could perhaps persuade the Saudi’s to break their support of United States policies and create a more unified Arab front. Looking back from today’s perspective, it’s clear they would never hire an outsider, a non-Arab for such a mission with such sensitive, overriding implications, but this rainbow coalition of German, Japanese, South American, Russian, and Arab partners is simply eye opening in its international reach, as what they were able to get away with in weapons accumulation and distribution alone is truly mind-boggling. But like every idealistic vision, Carlos is soon undercut by a series of unforeseen catastrophes, all of which undermine his effectiveness, until the Cold War is over and eventually no country wants to have anything to do with him, becoming a dinosaur, an insignificant, aging player who is so terribly out of step with the times that all he can do is rest upon the laurels of his memories, recalling the brighter days when he was a significant force in the world.
After such a riveting opening leading through the end of the second section, this felt like one of the best films of the year, especially the fluid camera movement, the documentary style authenticity, the ambitious tone, the searing performance, the exquisite pacing, the ratcheted up intensity, the attention to detail, the effective use of punk music, but it quickly falls apart by the end where he becomes a shell of his former self, a pathetic, self-indulging lounge lizard who smokes and drinks too much and has an inordinately high opinion of himself even as the rest of the world has moved on and forgotten all about him. Assayas does a brilliant job reassembling certain highlights of his life, reminding viewers why he was a major player for a brief instant in time, as he was a gun runner with tremendous organizing skills, but he’s also like a kid that never grew up, remaining selfish, vain, crude, chauvinistic, and arrogant, the picture of a bloated, alcoholic Westerner who eventually succumbs to all the diseases of decadence and pleasure while supposedly maintaining his allegiances with the poor and the dispossessed, eventually becoming that petit bourgeois hypocrite he loathed and railed against for so much of his life.