Wednesday, May. 19, 2010

Carlos: The Terrorist as Rock Star

The bio-drama Carlos, which premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival and on French television, opens today in New York and Los Angeles in its full, majestic 5-1/2 hours. A version half that length can be seen beginning Oct. 20 through many cable providers' video on demand. The Sundance Channel, on which Carlos played earlier this week, may reshow the complete film later this year. My report from Cannes appears below. — R.C.

Olivier Assayas' 5-1/2-hour bio-pic of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the Venezuelan revolutionary known as Carlos the Jackal, makes a suitable centerpiece to a Cannes festival that began with a hagiographic movie about the legendary bandit Robin Hood and included two films — the fictional Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and the documentary Inside Job — about the financial wizards who steal from rich and poor alike. Movies love to depict outlaws with agendas; and Carlos, whose guns and bombs killed dozens of people in the 1970s during his reign as the media's favorite terrorist, is a fascinating cinema subject: more dangerous than John Dillinger, a suitable adversary for Jason Bourne.

Sanchez — embodied by Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez with a quick intelligence and a thrilling physicality — had plenty of charisma and knew how to use it. In his cool uniform of beret, shades and a cigar from Castro's personal plantation, he swaggered onto the world stage like the spirit of Che Guevara. Under a dozen pseudonyms he totted up more frequent-flyer miles (if you include the plane he hijacked) than George Clooney's character in Up in the Air. Most notorious for the 1975 kidnapping of several OPEC ministers in Vienna, he was also responsible for the bombing of a Paris restaurant, the attempted bombing of Israeli-linked establishments, the killing of the French Ambassador to Lebanon and his pregnant wife in their Beirut apartment and — the crime that got him arrested in 1994 and convicted three years later — the murder of two Paris policemen who were about to arrest him.

Carlos could have stepped out of an espionage thriller, and in a way he did. The nickname bestowed on him came from Frederick Forsyth's 1971 novel The Day of the Jackal, about an assassin hired to kill Charles de Gaulle. Later the Carlos legend inspired elements in Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six and Robert Ludlum's Bourne novels. (Ramirez appeared in the 2007 movie version of The Bourne Identity.) He's been the subject of a Mexican film, Carlos el Terrorista and an American picture, The Assignment, and is dealt with at length in Terror's Advocate, Barbet Schroeder's documentary about radical defense lawyer Jacques Verges. Now he gets his own international epic — which, on sheer movie terms, is the grandest, most vivacious entry at Cannes. Made for French TV and shown in three feature-length parts, Carlos will appear in U.S. theaters and on the Sundance channel this fall.

In a Babel of languages (French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, Hungarian, Russian but mostly English), the script by Dan Franck and Assayas bustles across a quarter-century of modern history. The tone is neither censorious nor sanctifying; nor does the film really explain Carlos. Assayas, whose last film Summer Hours won the New York, Los Angeles and National Critics' awards for last year's best foreign-language film, must figure that the forces that birthed the Jackal (Sanchez's revolution-minded father, for example, who named the boy after Lenin) are of less cinematic interest than his crimes and achievements. He may be right: in movies, show beats tell.

Charming and lethal by turns, dedicated and sexually voracious, gifted at languages and disguises, Carlos became as famous as an undercover murderer can. When he takes the OPEC ministers hostage on a flight from Vienna to Algiers, one African diplomat asks for his autograph. Wadi Haddad, his boss in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who ordered the OPEC caper, is suspicious of Carlos' lust for limelight. When Carlos protests that "I have done a great deal for the Palestinian cause," Haddad snaps, "You have done a great deal for your own cause." In 1979 Carlos' exploits earned him the attention of Iraq's new leader, Saddam Hussein. ("He was impressed," an intermediary says. "He wants you to lead the commando raid.") And in the terrorist branch of show business, notoriety is celebrity. As a sympathetic journalist tells him, "Without headlines you don't exist." Carlos smiles ruefully; later he has the journalist killed.

For all his infernal radiance, Carlos had more botches than kills on his resume, in part because the talent pool for European terrorists was so shallow. Early in the movie, two killer-clown Arabs stand on an Orly Airport terrace, aim a bazooka at an El Al plane and blow up a Yugoslav one instead. (Adding insult, a radical organization from Yugoslavia quickly takes credit.) His co-conspirators are a devoted but clumsy crowd, often getting nabbed by police with their artillery and fake passports. One German, known as Angie (Christoph Bach), is a kind of pacifist terrorist; anti-Zionist but not anti-Jewish, he rebels when Jewish hostages are killed in a cruise-ship takeover and later spills his conflicted guts in an expose in Der Spiegel.

Carlos' teammates also commit the terrorist blunder of thinking local, not global. Ready and able to seize European and Arab diplomats for "collaborating" with Washington, they never thought to fly into the belly of the Great Satan and blow up things and people in the U.S. (That bright idea would be left to a later generation.) And even when they think big, someone steals their thunder. In one startling scene, Yuri Andropov — then the head of the Soviet KGB, later Premier of the U.S.S.R. — convenes a meeting with Carlos and other heavy hitters and announces he will pay big bucks for the death of "the Big Boss" — Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Alas for the conference of thugs, Sadat was murdered in 1981 in accordance with a fatwa approved by Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind sheik behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

A radical stud need not be a feminist. Convention dictates, in fact, that he be surrounded by women, and Carlos has plenty: a wife and child he leaves behind in London; the German radical Magdalena Koff (Nora von Waldstatten, exuding a feline sexuality that Hollywood should take immediate notice of), who wants to go on kills but is kept around for ornamental value; and his young Muslim wife Lana (Razane Jammal). In between he has lots of quickies with available females; even Magdalena is stolen from his closest rebel colleague, Johannes Weinreich (Alexander Scheer). To Carlos, women are more valuable as objects to relieve sexual tension than as comrades in arms. Indeed, his most intimate accomplices are his guns. "Weapons are meant to be treated gently," he declares, whether aware or not of the phallic implications. "Weapons are an extension of my body." And women are its servants.

A terrorist who is as famous as a rock star should remember than rock stars fade; in 1989, when Carlos turned 40, the Berlin Wall fell and, with it, the hopes of the revolutionary class for political change through violence. Arab and Eastern-bloc countries that once harbored him now can't stand the heat. A Syrian colonel, issuing a deportation notice to Carlos, says, "You must leave Syria. There is no Socialist bloc. The Cold War is over." The Jackal has become a rock star past his prime — perhaps, counting the OPEC snatch, merely a one-hit wonder — and if he tried to go out on an oldies tour, he'd be arrested.

Assayas aims high with his big, bright movie. He makes explicit reference to two bio-pic masterpieces in whose company he might like Carlos to reside. One is Francis Coppola's The Godfather, another synoptic saga about a crime family; in one of the few scenes in the film where Carlos looks as if he's having real fun, he plays merrily with his child in a garden, as Brando's Vito Corleone did with his grandchild. The other is David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, which traces the rise of a non-Arab leader of an Arab revolt, and whose charismatic hero becomes disillusioned in the diminuendo second half. Carlos is shown teaching the martial strategies of T.E. Lawrence to a classroom of bored students in Sudan.

Of course, this is no liberator of the Arab people, or even the Palestinians; he is the murderer of many civilians, most of them innocent, who died for his cause. And Carlos, while matching the Coppola and Lean films in length and breadth, misses out on depth. The picture is a series of enticing vignettes, all of which have the pleasures of melodrama and the suspense of wondering who's to be blown up next. No masterpiece, Assayas' movie is a fast-paced, knowing trip through two decades of violence on two continents. And at the center is the predatory Jackal, Lawrence of Terroria.