I have neglected writing about the current movies I have seen, the good (The Social Network – very good actually), the mediocre (The Town, Machete) and the terrible (Hereafter, Paranormal Activity 2, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps). I get caught up with my countdowns that current releases are pushed to the backburner. After seeing Carlos last weekend, I decided my critical lethargy had to end, not because the movie is an instant masterpiece (I’m still up in the air on that), but because the movie needs to be seen, especially here in the U.S. where hysteria about terrorism often clouds our understanding of it. After September 11 terrorists have become the immediate other, like other boogey men from our past: Communists, anarchists, Black Panthers, homosexuals, etc, inspiring more fear than their threat warrants and squelching any thoughtful consideration of it. The only comparable modern groups that send the same chills down America’s collective back are illegal immigrants and pedophiles (the ultimately terrifying group would be a violent arm of NAMBLA composed of illegal Mexican immigrants). I would add Muslims to this list but, let’s be honest, in the modern lexicon shamefully driven by Fox News, Muslims have become synonymous with terrorists.
In Carlos director Olivier Assayas does something modern day politicians can’t or won’t do: he historicizes terrorism as a political tactic without demonizing (or celebrating) terrorists, an essential step on the path to understanding anything. He also created a sleek, stylish film that is eminently watchable, oddly enthralling for most of its five and a half hour run time as it frenetically jumps to locations around Europe and the Middle East with a wonderfully nostalgic musical track. The movie falls short though in delivering any real insight into the personality or motivations of its subject Ilich Ramírez Sánchez a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal, the notorious but almost rock star-like terrorist of the 1970s and 1980s. We are treated to some stomach-churning episodes of terrorist activity, but we have little idea what motivates them beyond vague calls for the liberation of Palestine or timid denunciations of consumer capitalism. I use words like “vague” and “timid” to describe their motivations. The terrorist actions themselves are bold, but the motivations behind them are confused.
Possibly my confusion has less to do with any shortcomings of Assayas’ film and more to do with the enigmatic, almost mythical, Carlos whose political philosophy apparently had little to do with his leadership in terrorist organizations of the 1970s and 1980s. Sure, he steadfastly called for the demolition of capitalism, but never articulated how bombing a restaurant in Paris or taking hostages in Vienna furthered that goal. Instead we see the self-perpetuation of terrorism, where violence becomes the goal and ideology takes a back seat, if it ever had a seat at all. Carlos and his people love the fight; the cause is secondary, something I have always suspected about modern day al-Qaeda terrorists.
Carlos’ ideological and philosophical vagueness is, ironically, rooted in an almost religious Marxist certainty. But, like modern devotees of the exalted Free Market a la Milton Freidman and Ayn Rand, Carlos requires no evidence that Soviet-style Communism is the answer to the world’s inequalities. It’s a given. Anyone with half of a brain can see it to be true. The only question for Carlos is how to dismantle the capitalistic exploitation of the world. Fed up with Leftist intellectual masturbation of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Carlos joins the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLPF), ready to fight for the high ideals he and his friends have done little more than talk about in smoky cafes and demonstrate for in pointless marches. When nothing changes and frustration mounts, taking up arms isn’t a large leap. But who does he point those arms at? Carlos’ rage is unfocused and there are plenty of unscrupulous people ready to use and channel it for their own ends.
Assayas shows us how easy it was for governments to manipulate Carlos. He gives us several scenes where he unintentionally contradicts himself. He claims to be against imperialistic exploitation of weaker nations, but thinks nothing of working to further the imperialistic ambitions of the Soviet Union. He denounces the bourgeoisie to one of his girlfriends while being served a gourmet dinner in what can only be described as a bourgeois restaurant. He also expects respect from his enemies, as officers of opposing sides would in a war, though he demeans and dehumanizes them. One of my favorite contradictions came late in one of Carlos’ most famous exploits, the storming of an OPEC meeting in Vienna where he and his comrades took member nations’ representatives hostage. When the operation begins to fall apart, the authorities offer him a compromise. Though taking the offer would cause his mission to fail, he wants to take it so he and his comrades can avoid jail or death, free to fight another day. He tells one hostage that he will settle the matter democratically with his comrades. Unexpectedly they all oppose the deal, sending Carlos into fits of rage. He angrily tosses out any pretentions of democracy and unilaterally decides to take the deal. These are the contradictions of a confused man whose only certainty in life is violence.
There are fleeting moments of dialogue about terrorism as a political tool but they tend to be cut short, one of the biggest weaknesses of the picture. When a faction of Japanese radicals takes the French ambassador and his staff hostage in The Hague, their leader tries to justify their actions by appealing to the ambassador’s own background as a resistance fighter against the Nazis. The ambassador glares at his hostage-takers and dismisses this false equivalency. All of your tactics, he says, are the exact things we in the resistance fought against. This was a rare moment of insight, but Assayas ends the moment abruptly. I wish he had taken a moment to develop that thought and nurture the distinction between freedom fighting and terrorism (thereby annihilating the silly thought-to-be truism, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”). But there is just so much for Assayas to cover that he sometimes sacrifices insight so the episodic plot can chug along.
Edgar Ramirez, who brings Carlos to life, is dazzlingly good in the part, so we can forgive much. He captures Carlos’ charisma and volatility. We understand why so many followed him, but are repelled by the idea of inviting him into our homes. We also see that he may not have been as coldhearted as his reputation suggests. He visibly balks when forced to kill someone face to face, without the physical distance and anonymity of a bombing. Ramirez skillfully folds all of Carlos’ insecurities, bravado, sexuality, intelligence, and charisma into one believably contradictory personality. He struts through his scenes with a presence made possible only by his confidence. Ramirez does a great job of embodying everything about Carlos – and, by extension terrorism – that makes it so destructive, not just to its immediate victims, but to the very cause for which terrorists claim to support. How many people have been converted to the Palestinian cause because of terrorism perpetuated on their behalf? Throughout the movie we see acts of violence working against their stated goals, however noble they may or may not be.
Terrorism is a complex issue that deserves serious consideration. Though Assayas’ film isn’t the final word on the subject, it is an important piece of the cinematic conversation, joining other recent thoughtful pieces such as Munich and The Baader-Meinhoff Complex. Carlos demonstrates how global powers often channel the rage of their most militant supporters to further their own diplomatic ambitions. Terrorists such as Carlos often remain blind to the more pragmatic reasons governments such as Syria and East Germany supported him, seeing himself as an indispensible soldier in the fight against global capitalism. However, times changed, pushing state sponsored terrorists like him to the margins, increasingly becoming an embarrassment to those who previously supported him. Carlos never understands why he is pushed aside because he never understood why he was useful. He was simply another weapon in the Cold War arsenal of the Soviets (though he never worked directly for them). He was only valuable because he was able to strike where official Communist states and their allies couldn’t. That he never understood this, that he thought he was valuable beyond his usefulness for Cold War games, not an international struggle for workers’ rights, doomed him to a future of obscurity, irrelevance, and imprisonment. He is currently serving a life sentence for his role in the shooting deaths of two police officers in Paris. Too bad the other side of the coin, Osama bin Laden, couldn’t have met a similar fate. (Don’t be lulled onto the moral high ground by thinking the U.S. had clean hands. We cheerfully used bin Laden against the Soviets. And ask anyone in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Guatemala, Chile, to name a few, about the reality of U.S. sponsored terrorism during the Cold War.)
Assayas handles the material of Carlos’ life well, justifying the extended run time, without which we would not have gotten a clear handle on the man, his world, and the people who populated it. He walks a fine line between vilifying and celebrating the man. Assayas and Edgar Ramirez were at the screening I attended and the director rightly dismissed the idea that he made a historically accurate account of the man’s life. He made the movie as accurate as possible, but he set out to deconstruct the myth of the “Jackal,” a term that Assayas scrupulously avoids using in the movie since, as Assayas told us, the press anointed him with that nickname, not Carlos himself. Assayas set out to make a movie about a man who committed acts of terrorism, rather than regurgitate the myths – both positive and negative – that have clouded our understanding of the man and, more importantly, our understanding of what terrorism is, why it is used, what it means, and how we can prevent it in the future.
The movie only lags in the last part when Carlos is forced into exile after Communism falls, first in Syria then Sudan, transforming into an overweight, satisfied middle class businessman, someone an earlier version of himself would have sneered at. But the first two exuberant parts would be meaningless – the celebration of the man I feared it was going to be – if it weren’t for the lackluster, seemingly unfocused third part. Dramatically and cinematically it may stumble, but it is crucial for the complete story and probably captures the uncertainty of the times better than I appreciated while watching it.
The movie has been making the rounds at film festivals and art houses in both the long and a shorter two and a half hour version. I haven’t seen the short version so I don’t know if it is successful on its own, but I suspect you want to see the long version. It also aired on the Sundance Channel and I believe you can view it on either Sundance or IFC On-Demand. Well worth seeing.