by Tony Dayoub
Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours) alternates between quieter dialogue-driven films and action-oriented pictures which explore themes related to the effect globalization has on individuals. So, given his previous film's quiet look at a family dealing with the death of their matriarch, it is no surprise he should return with this period biopic centered on the infamous terrorist, Carlos the Jackal. Anyone who grew up in the seventies can remember the rash of plane hijackings and hostage taking that plagued the era. Too many, Carlos seemed to be an omnipresent mastermind behind nearly all of them. What is surprising is how consistently exciting Carlos remains throughout its 5-and-a-half-hour running time. Even a film like Che (2008), which I rank among one of my recent favorites (and has sprung up in conversations comparing it to Carlos despite bearing little resemblance to it beyond sharing famous revolutionary protagonists), has its slower paced lulls. But I saw Carlos last week in one marathon sitting (interrupted only once by a 30-minute intermission), and it moves with a real urgency throughout its three parts.
Carlos starts making the general theatrical rounds in a full-length theatrical roadshow edition this Friday, October 15th at New York's IFC Center. For those who have the patience, I highly recommend seeing it in this fashion. Otherwise, it will play in three parts over the next three nights on the Sundance Channel starting at 9PM EST tomorrow night (avoid the On Demand version which has been radically truncated).
Carlos' first two parts set up the larger-than-life Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (Édgar Ramírez in a star-making turn), the Venezuelan-born terrorist whose public persona is ripped away by Assayas to reveal plenty of chinks, not the least of which is the assertion he is more mercenary than idealist. Slowly, over the course of these two episodes, the "revolutionary" code-named "Carlos" is shown to be an undisciplined egotist who never quite has the follow-through to live up to his public reputation. From his failure to complete university in Moscow—initially characterized by him as a principled dispute between his Marxist ideals and mainstream bourgeois expectations—to his self-centered philandering—justified to his wife Magdalena (played by the Goth-gorgeous Nora von Waldstätten) as part of their Marxist way of life—Carlos turns out to be the antithesis of the notorious master criminal who seemingly executed so many terrorist plots so expertly.
His grandest one, the kidnapping of OPEC's oil ministers after raiding their headquarters in Vienna, is the fulcrum on which the first part's cliffhanger hinges, ending just as Carlos' team heads to OPEC headquarters. The rest of the setpiece takes up a considerable amount of the second part's time, and it is probably the peak of the entire miniseries (it originally premiered on French TV). Tensions during this sequence escalate as Carlos' plan begins to unravel due to impulsive mistakes he commits along the way, representative of Assayas' silent assertion that in this pre-Internet world where news did not travel fast, truth could be more easily obfuscated by a man who knew how to manipulate the media.
In fact, the Carlos of the miniseries proves to be not just a little inept at balancing his egomaniacal appetites and his revolutionary concerns, sacrificing much of his ideals for women, guns, money, and press opportunities. The film makes a nice double bill with Munich (2005) a movie set contemporaneously to Assayas' first episode which demystifies the mysterious Mossad by divulging many of the mistakes the Israelis made in pursuit of revenge for the assassination of their athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Carlos' only slightly less intriguing third part shows us what happens when his reputation begins to catch up to him, as his growing girth, an acute testicular pain, and abandonment by his wife and child parallel both the rotting of the man's soul by vice and the decline in his dealings with true revolutionaries who want nothing to do with a terrorist increasingly coasting on his celebrity. By the time authorities apprehend him, he is a pain-wracked whimpering crook who regrets not scheduling his planned liposuction operation before his capture.
Ultimately it's the episodic nature of the third part, with Carlos being forced to move from one country to another as the once integral operative becomes irrelevant, which undermines the momentum of its previous two parts. But Ramírez fleshes out this hoodlum with qualities that would seem contradictory, charm and coldness. And Assayas succeeds by giving Carlos an unexpected but fascinating story arc, a look at one man's life as he goes from badass to dumbass in a slow-burn cinematic implosion the likes of which we've never seen.