Viva la narcisismo! In Carlos, Olivier Assayas’s five-hour-plus epic about legendary Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal, sex is a cocked gun and ready-to-blow grenade (and vice versa), terrorism is a vehicle for—and given meaning by—celebrity, and all the fervent platitudes about anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and Palestinian causes prove secondary motivations to worship at the almighty cult of self. Like that other multipart saga about an iconic third-world revolutionary, Steven Soderbergh’s Che, the film (originally produced as a three-installment French TV miniseries) provides an intimate view of its protagonist (Édgar Ramírez) while maintaining considerable distance from him, a detached perspective that critically speaks to his espoused beliefs’ lack of substance.
As Carlos moves up the global terror ladder supposedly trying to unite the world’s insurgent factions, his trite assertions of being a “soldier” at “war” ring hollow, mere maxims repeated in a vain attempt to justify actions driven by far less noble impulses. When Carlos claims to a paramour that he embraces clichés because “there’s always some truth to them,” it’s a subtle attempt at self-validation for his derivative convictions, but, also, it’s one of many sly gestures in which Assayas both cops to the familiar nature of his saga and critiques the conceited criminal his film only superficially pretends to glorify.
Which isn’t to say that Carlos isn’t fascinated by its center of attention, a “Peruvian playboy” whose status as a media darling came not only from his bold killing and abduction exploits (which peaked in 1975 when he took the delegates of the Vienna OPEC conference hostage), but also from his ladies’ man reputation. Nor is it to suggest that Assayas is arguing that Carlos didn’t perhaps initially believe in what he championed. Rather, it’s that the film consistently undercuts, if not outright derides, the pretentions of its subject, suggesting time and again that revolutionary zeal was, above all else, driven by a base appetite for fame, power, wealth, and women. “Workers of the world unite,” goes the company line, though Assayas’s heavily researched, detailed script roots its character study in Carlos’s fondness for himself, beginning with the sight of him caressing, and admiring in the mirror, his young, chiseled naked body, and ending two decades later with the now-pudgy cause célèbre undergoing liposuction to eliminate nasty love handles. Vanity is his guiding impetus, and thus, while Carlos’s speechifying is rife with Guerilla Leader 101 handbook truisms, his outbursts of egomania exude authenticity, as when he introduces himself to his OPEC captives with “My name is Carlos. You may have heard of me.”
Assayas’s portrait touches on many themes found in his prior demonlover and Boarding Gate (power, sex, espionage, betrayal, the relationship between image and reality, and the detachment fostered by modern globalization), as well as proves grounded in contradictions that challenge the mythic vision of Carlos promoted by both the media and the man himself. During the OPEC raid, Carlos wears a Che-ish beret, but also a chic leather jacket fit for Brando. He slams the petit bourgeoisie and yet acts just like one, coveting Mercedes Benzes, gala parties, adulterous liaisons, and the spotlight attention of reporters. Carlos talks the talk, but primarily to hear himself speak, and aside from wanting to be valued by the world’s premiere murderers (including Saddam Hussein), his main interest involves enticing women to sleep with him via crude phallic-firearm come-ons. “Weapons are an extension of my body,” he tells one adoring female recruit. “Like my arms.” (Or, um, something else). Here and in other instances of cocky grandstanding and self-congratulation, Assayas pulls no punches in revealing the fatuousness of Carlos, a man driven by his crotch and his perpetual need to feel like—to borrow the code name given to Anwar El Sadat, whom Carlos spent years, and $4 million of Gaddafi’s money, planning to assassinate before being beaten to the punch—“the Big Boss.”
In the film’s revelatory scene, Carlos, confronted with the unexpected dilemma over whether to martyr himself by fulfilling his OPEC mission and killing the Saudi Arabian Oil Minister, or to free his remaining hostages (now on a plane docked in Algeria) in exchange for $20 million, he ignores the wishes of his true-believer comrades and abandons the cause to take the loot, all in the bullshit name of living to fight another day. It’s a stunning moment of truth, in that it lays bare Carlos’s genuine instincts: self-preservation first, cash second, and ideology sometime after that. Furthermore, it’s complemented by a host of fact-based dramatic details—such as a German radical realizing that his comrades are driven less by political philosophy than Auschwitz-esque intolerance; or in Carlos’s casual fondness for murder, a taste shared by his crazy OPEC accomplice Nada (Julia Hummer)—that illustrate how hate, lust, greed, and self-interest quickly became, after the idealistic ’60s, the core motivators of the era’s terrorists. And also, crucially, of the numerous “socialist” governments (the USSR, East Germany, and Hungary, as well as Syria, Libya, and Iran) that covertly funded them for their own purposes.
Though commissioned for the small screen, Carlos’s widescreen visuals demand a theater, and its aesthetic dexterity is a continual marvel. Probably because of the film’s TV origins, Assayas relies heavily on close-ups that eventually come off as a bit too constricting for an expansive tale that spans decades and continents. Yet such proximity to Carlos and his various cohorts affords up-close-and-personal opportunities to consider their behavior and emotional responses in a way that creates forceful engagement between spectator and image.
That sense of closeness is amplified by the script’s exhaustive historical underpinnings (even though considerable artistic liberties and fictitious elements have been included to flesh out the saga), and it’s enlivened by cinematography that’s at once supple and muscular, lithe, and potent. Smooth mid-scene transitional fades and ’70s-nostalgic blooming white lighting lend a measure of modest stylistic flair. Yet Assayas puts little visible auteurist imprint on the proceedings save for his use of anachronistic soundtrack cuts—skuzzy guitar-driven punk and post-punk, including the Dead Boys’s “Sonic Reducer” and New Order’s “Dreams Never End”—which function as electric emotional complements to the action at hand (and Carlos’s personal weakness and failures), and further solidify Carlos’s own solipsistic conception of himself as a gun-toting rock star.
Assayas believes the devil’s in the details, and to a great extent, Carlos bears this out, providing a meticulous chronological account of the mercenary’s exploits, from his early days as a wannabe big shot blasting his way out of a seemingly hopeless confrontation with the cops, to his brazen OPEC raid. The latter commands upward of 90 minutes and—in terms of staging, plotting, and pedal-to-the-metal momentum and wiry rhythm—is not only the film’s centerpiece, but a work of sustained suspense and storytelling clarity that could stand alone as its own feature. Similarly, when focusing on the specific step-by-step structure of terrorist activities (how a car bomb attack is carried out, for example), Assayas’s approach is scintillating. Nonetheless, his desire to depict every last thing Carlos ever did also results in a rather draggy third part, which—fixating on Carlos’s fall from favor within militant Arab circles, his crumbling marriage to Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldstätten) and conversion to Islam, and his floundering about until his 1994 arrest by the French for killing two cops—bogs down in repetition. With Carlos at this point a figure with whom we’re wholly familiar, the final chapter frequently spins its wheels in redundant visions of his dissolution, most of which reconfirm notions already suggested by prior sequences, and which finally lessen some of the material’s breakneck verve.
Even with a third act that might have benefited from more judicious editing, however, Assayas’s latest remains both a powerhouse piece of docudrama-thriller filmmaking and a cannily politicized work, one which creates enlivened friction from its simultaneously compelling depiction of Carlos’s feats and censure of its subject and his “cause.” Carlos is a committed zealot and obvious hypocrite, a sexist, murderous bastard (or, as his superior Haddad says, “just an executioner”) who’s also unquestionably sexy. Ramirez’s lead turn is one of commanding presence but little interiority, which is ideal for a story that doesn’t quite buy what its main character is nominally selling.
Carlos is always most revealing when watching the Jackal act and react rather than recite Marxist chestnuts, because the film, like Boarding Gate, is ultimately one transfixed by movement: the swift, decisive physicality of its protagonist, the rise-and-fall trajectory of his career, and the larger ways in which on-the-ground terror operations always begin far, far away, behind locked doors where amoral government bigwigs politely buy and sell lives for geopolitical advantage. “Carlos scares me. Life means nothing to him,” says a cohort, a statement that Assayas contends is only half true; life for him, and his state sponsors, meant nothing—except, of course, when it was their own.