Last week the Sundance Channel aired a five-and-a-half hour miniseries about the brutal and charismatic real-life terrorist known to the world as Carlos the Jackal. Starring Edgar Ramirez (from Domino and The Bourne Ultimatum) and directed by French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, Carlos will actually have a theatrical release this weekend as well, with an intermission (it will premiere in Los Angeles at the Egyptian Theatre on October 22nd).
The real Carlos, born Ilich Ramirez Sanchez in Venezuela, joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in 1970 at the age of 21, after years of Marxist student activism and training in guerrilla warfare. An affluent young Latin playboy who enjoyed living large while plotting to rid the world of capitalist oppression, Carlos was an unrepentant killer who idolized the cowardly murderer Che Guevara. He fumbled his way through an assassination attempt, botched (but deadly nonetheless) grenade and bomb attacks in Paris, and two failed RPG attacks at Paris airports, then shot dead two French detectives and fled to Beirut.
There he planned a bold assault on the OPEC headquarters in Vienna in 1975 (for which he donned a beret in the style of his hero). Leading this hostage-taking operation catapulted him to international fame and earned him upwards of $20 million in ransom payout – although his failure to follow orders and to execute specific hostages cost him his membership in the PFLP.
Thereafter and throughout the ’80s, Carlos connected with a variety of terrorist partners, including Saddam Hussein, to continue his reign of terror. He even spearheaded a plot to assassinate Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, only to have the Muslim Brotherhood beat him to it. Eventually, Carlos went into hiding, faded into impotence, and was snatched from the Sudan in 1994 by French agents who brought him back for trial. He never became the celebrated pop icon that the totalitarian Che is, but in his time Carlos was almost as much a household name as bin Laden is today.
Prior to viewing the miniseries, I was curious to see how Carlos the Jackal would be portrayed – as the egotistical, murdering ideologue he was or as a folk-hero freedom-fighter in the vein of Steven Soderbergh’s Che (in which actor Ramirez also appears). In a clear marketing attempt to ride the coattails of Che’s mythology and popularity, the posters and promotional stills almost all show “Carlos” sporting the Che-inspired beret. The fact that the miniseries was appearing on the Sundance Channel, the spawn of anti-war activist Robert Redford, also fed my cynical suspicion that Carlos the anti-capitalist would be glorified.
A gushing review by Betsy Sharkey of the L.A. Times gave me further cause to expect the usual moral inversion. After commenting breathlessly on Edgar Ramirez’s “feral sexuality” (apparently succumbing to it herself), Ms. Sharkey was quick to assure readers that the miniseries “neither romanticizes nor demonizes” Carlos. Ordinarily, this is media-speak for, “it romanticizes him but we want to spin it as ‘non-judgmental.'” In an interview, Ramirez himself offers no condemnation of Carlos, stressing an actor’s need not to judge his character. I braced myself for 315 minutes of “freedom fighter” mythologizing.
Carlos is “cinematic genius,” Sharkey wrote, that is “already destined to stand alongside the greats” like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. After sitting through all three nights of the Sundance miniseries, I certainly wouldn’t go that far, but I confess that it is extraordinary. Unlike Soderbergh’s Che, Carlos is riveting from the opening frame and relentlessly paced (although the film’s drive and focus begin to flag in Part 3 as Carlos becomes increasingly dissipated and irrelevant on the international stage, you nevertheless cannot tear yourself away from watching it). It is astonishingly authentic and faithful to the research, and the acting is uniformly excellent by the entire cast.
Does the film romanticize him? To a degree it does, in the sense that Edgar Ramirez is better-looking than the real Carlos and impressively embodies his charisma, egotism, ideological fervor and yes, even his feral sexuality. But it doesn’t rationalize or soften the edges of his misogyny, selfishness, and utter indifference to the victims of his class war.
I would have liked to see less moral neutrality and more moral clarity here, but director Assayas did throw a few crumbs my way. During a hostage-taking by members of the Japanese Red Army, for example, a terrorist tries to bond ideologically with the French ambassador whom he’s holding at gunpoint: “You’re a former Resistance fighter. So you understand our struggle, our methods.” The ambassador shoots back: “You personify everything we fought against: terror, blackmail, the taking of civilian hostages.”
Carlos reveled in his fame, and the miniseries depicts that (although it could have hit that note harder). In Part 2, for example, he proclaims his usefulness to a Palestinian terror group: “I have done a great deal for the Palestinian cause!” The leader of the group, who views Carlos as a loose cannon and a liability, corrects him: “You have done a great deal for your own cause. You are famous now.” There was no room for “stars” in the organization, and from boyhood Carlos desired to be known the world over.
And that brings me to the miniseries’ one unfortunate flaw. Ms. Sharkey claims that it “dismantles the myth to reveal and take some measure of the man underneath.” Actually, we get virtually no measure of the man underneath. The roots of his motivations are never explored. We have no idea what drove him to become, as he was fond of describing himself, an “international revolutionary.” The viewer never knows, for example, about Carlos’ fervently Communist father, who named his son Ilich after Lenin, “the biggest man in all humanity,” and set him on a path of ideological hatred and terrorist violence early on.
The real Carlos turned 61 just this week in a French prison, where he has been since being seized in Khartoum. Convinced that fundamentalist Islam is the new wave of anti-imperialism, he has become a Muslim and written a book about “revolutionary Islam,” which he says “attacks the ruling classes in order to achieve a more equitable redistribution of wealth.” In his book he praises bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks, and claims that only a coalition of Islamic and Marxist revolutionaries can bring down America the imperialist oppressor, a pursuit he describes as “the highest goal of humanity.”
The most recent of a spate of excellent European films about terrorists and gangsters like Mesrine, The Baader-Meinhof Complex, and A Prophet, Carlos spans more than twenty years, more than half a dozen countries, and just as many languages, mostly English, French, Spanish, and Arabic. Despite its frustrating moral distance from its subject, the miniseries is a must-see historical epic of the origins of modern terrorism – and of its first repellant celebrity.