Showing the life of a 'revolutionary' (or, by all accounts, a self-highly regarded terrorist) can be a tricky thing for a filmmaker. How does one make an audience sympathetic, if at all, or the other way totally despicable which might be too easy to make for a 5-hour trip? What could also be subtitled "A Tale of Anti-Imperialism and Cigarettes", Olivier Assayas' mini-series-cum-epic-movie on Carlos Sanchez aka Carlos the Jackal, a man who worked for a while for the Palestinians and then for the Syrians before history caught up with him and the Cold War ended, is in a position of intrigue for how the director posits him for the attentive viewer. He's not entirely worthy of our praise for being heroic, but he's at times a little too complex to be pegged a total villain. If he is a villain it's of his own doing. He's honestly, or as far as I can figure from a piece of dramatization (or at best docu-drama), portrayed as an egomaniac who looked at his struggle as a war and wanted everyone in lock-step with him, including his wife and hangers-on.
For a while we see that his dedication to the 'cause', whatever that might be as a Marxist working for an Arab terror network in line with Palestine and Sadaam-based Iraq, and yet he's not really all that successful. Unlike Steven Soderbergh's Che, which showed in an epic format a more linear rise and fall saga progress from part one to part two, Carlos doesn't have a particular 'rise' exactly. He gained notoriety for a series of bombings and organized affronts, and specifically (as seen in part one here) a hostage situation at Opec that involved as its original goal to execute the Saudi oil minister as part of a deal with Iraq. And yet he has to compromise, and never quite impresses the head of the PFLP who sees him as insubordinate and doing things his own way, gaining press while not adhering to totals dedication. He dopes have dedication: to himself, and to his own viewpoint on being a soldier in a Marxist war: no super-power is worse than the other, they're the same, but the key is anti-imperialism. And in this case, Carlos, for a short while, would rather that he be his own empire.
At times his ego-mania is easier to detect than others. As the anti-hero of the story, Carlos is persuasive, dominant, intelligent, but also ruthless and cunning and, until he has to bend with barely a choice save for his own death at the Opec hostage crisis in 75, uncompromising. And being that it's the 1970's and anti-Israel being all-in and other affronts to society going on throughout Europe, others join with him, or sometimes turn against him. He has his share of traitors, like the arab man who is his right hand man for a while (in part one) until he rats him out right to his face in front of the cops. He also has his lovers, mainly the German anarchist Magdakena Kopp, who becomes his long-suffering wife and would-be soldier in his group until she's put in jail for a botched bombing. And there are other supporting characters like the flawed but more pragmatic sidekick who got shot during the Opec raid and doesn't want anything to do with Carlos afterward, or the crazy girl, Nada, who finds it to be the greatest injustice that they have to sell out to the Austrians a the Opec fiasco.
There are too many supporting characters to all recount here, some more interesting to watch just for the acting like Ahmad Kaabour as Carlos' first boss, Wadie Hadad, who tries to put him in his place- more like an employee at a typical business (maybe not ala-Lundbergh, but it'll do), with a headquarters acting as the office building and terror training ground like an intern meet-and-greet- and ultimately doesn't come through. Those scenes carry an interesting flavor all on their own as one can see how stone-faced and professional Carlos is but underneath, in between the lines, is affronted by this challenge of Hadad. He does care about the causes he fights, but he's not always particular about whom (one German officer remarks that he's merely a mercenary and uncontrollable, kind of like an anarcho-marxist Han Solo).
But then there's something that made me respect Assayas' film even more than I had before, and, despite the occasional lull or a scene that could have been cut here or there (I'd need to watch it again to know for sure, and I wonder when I'd get the time). It's the last hour or so in part three, following around the time when Magdalena is released from jail in 1985. By this time Carlos is still doing the here-and-there gun deal like he used to do, but not much in the same way. He's changed, and this change contiunue into the late 80's and early 90's. His only comrade left, whispy moustached drunk Hans-Joaquim, says that "the war is over" once they're kicked out of Syria and into the wilderness of limited asylum in other countries like the Sudan. I wonder if it was even before that that Carlos left it all; he basically sells out in this last hour, burns out with his flab and bad testicles (for which he prefers liposuction before testicle surgery), and feigns at becoming petit-bourgeois while sort of in the underground.
This epic is long, though I would suggest going for the long version as opposed to the shortened 165 minute cut. While I've yet to see that version, it's better to see the full scope of this project through, how Assayas gives this long story spreading over 25 years the room to breath. And history buffs will dig how Assayas chooses to cut away to the actual news footage of a scene of a crime: he'll show the process leading up to it, sometimes with a cool montage scope like when the car with the bomb attached is driven all the way from Hungary to Paris (map showing detail included) and stopping in front of its target, a newspaper building, and then it cuts to the original footage from the event.
And yet for the long length it has, and for some points where exposition takes over full-tilt (though never badly written or poorly performed), the direction is often very exciting, taut, and fitting the mood; when it's violent it's shocking in its quickness and realistic blood; when it's sexy it's sexy-as-hell (though only in small bits they're memorable, save for the jokeyness of having Carlos parade around naked in a couple of scenes). When it needs to rock, it comes on with some surprising flair wth a soundtrack of 70's and 80's "post-punk" or new-wave songs by the likes of the Dead Boys.
Basically, with Carlos you get a powerful reenactment of history done with some very wonderful actors, like the minor revelation Nora Von Walstaten as Magdalena, bringing sex and tenderness to a film that needs it as a basic thriller. But also, chiefly, the lead Edgar Ramirez, pulling off with conviction and daring how oddly charming, direct, frightening in his cool and anger, and one-track-mind Carlos can be, further demanding a role as it's like Charles Foster Kane, going from youth to (quasi) old age and really transforming into it. And with this history one can see how ruthless and cruel some could be, how some were crushed by their own consciences, and what it means to be really "Anti-Zionist" or "Anti-Europe" or "Anti-Empire". And, not too surprisingly, it can often come down to money, or a tainting of principles or what that even means.
(PS: And to emphasize what Roger Ebert pointed out, yes, there is a lot of smoking here (I wouldn't be surprised if it had been MPAA rated that would have gone as a warning before the violence and sex and language). I can see the point somewhat that smoking is a metaphor for terrorism, but it's more practical looking to me, and more related to the nature of changing history in the film: it was a time when pretty much everybody smoked, usually without thinking about it, but eventually people did it less as it was said "that's bad for you!"... That, or, as they say, A Cigar is just a Cigar, and sometimes it's a Big Brown Dick.)
(PPS: I almost neglected to mention one of the highlights of the year in entertainment comes with a scene that is a perfect demonstration of the horrorific absurdity of terrorism: at one point it's plotted to blow up a plane that's going to Israel with a grenade-launcher, but as the terrorists don't quite know how to aim one they shoot one other plane, and then another, but not their target. It's so awfully squeamish and tasteless a moment, yet rooted in a modern history where a moment like that is oddly sobering, and blackly funny)