Carlos the Jackal was most famously associated with killings, kidnappings, and hijackings attributed to Palestinian terrorist organizations, but as with many purported idealists—including cold-blooded murderers like Carlos—as the authorities closed in on him and his networks, he became more of a terrorist-for-hire. The ideology became contaminated by his own ego, his need for money and security, his contempt for women associated with various the causes, and his own irrelevance in later years. In those later years, he lost discipline, focus, and became a pawn used by various countries, like Syria, to improve relationships with the West.
At least, this is the view taken by the mini-series/movie Carlos, which uses an often pseudo-documentary style to tell this fictional story, based on the known facts, of the infamous terrorist’s exploits. The movie doesn’t balk at showing the human cost on innocent civilians of Carlos’ actions. Nor is it afraid to be wide in scope, making the excellent decision to introduce new characters with a short titled description on the screen, with name and role in either the hierarchy of terrorism/revolution or of law enforcement. The conciseness of decisions like these allows the filmmakers to focus in detail on Carlos’ rise, the intricacies of his most infamous operations, and to explore his relationships with other terrorists and revolutionaries.
The movie shares affinities with the excellent Baader Meinhoff Complex, covering part of the same period and some of the same personalities, given that Carlos’ operations often relied on the involvement of German extremist on the left—mostly the ones committed to change through violence. Like that movie, Carlos doesn’t gloss over the ruthlessness—and psychopathy disguised as idealism—of some of the individuals associated with these terrorist groups (some would call them revolutionaries, although I’m not sure even the surviving members would now call them that), but also acknowledges the iniquities of the social and political situations that bred such extremists.
More importantly in terms of creating riveting cinema, the actor Edgar Ramirez owns the role of Carlos the Jackal so utterly that it almost becomes an act of bravery. It’s an astonishing performance, with nary a crack in the facade, no apology to the audience, no wink, no nothing. Ramirez is Carlos throughout the six hours of the movie, in an acting role that exacts a toll on the body: Carlos ripped, Carlos with a beer belly, Carlos somewhere inbetween, the film masterfully giving us glimpses of Carlos waking up in the morning in different decades, always with an optimistic new wave pop song playing in the background, a song that’s either earnest or ironic depending on the context.
Carlos the Jackal as played by Ramirez radiates confidence even when he’s not confident, imposes his will brutally when under stress, uses his causes and charisma to get women to sleep with him and men to follow him, discards people without concern when he needs to, and clearly gets an adrenaline rush from being the center of attention. He’s serious and ridiculous at the same time, but so dangerous in his unpredictability that even when he’s ridiculous you can’t really laugh at him—either as a viewer or as another character in the movie. You begin to imagine what Carlos would’ve been like as dictator of a country, the kind of puffed-up generalissimo attitude Carlos displays, especially in later years, exaggerated beyond belief.
The performance is housed within an intricately structured movie with clear lines of sight in terms of plot—a tour de force of direction by Olivier Assayas, with stunning cinematography by Yorick Le Saux and Denis Lenoir, and edited together in masterful fashion. There’s also a strange innocence to the movie, in that we now live in times when security has become much more high-tech and rigorous, and some plots, like bringing a rocket launcher to an airport to blow up a plane taxiing for departure, that just wouldn’t get past the planning stages these days.
I can’t think of a more interesting juxtaposition than Carlos along with the aforementioned Baader Meinhoff Complex—and the two excellent Steven Soderbergh Che Guevera movies (there are no doubt other movies that could be included). Not because Carlos and Guevera are similar men, but because they shared similar ideologies put to different ends and actions. Together, these films document, among other things, various sides and elements of a particular strande of 20th century turmoil, documenting the ways in which men and women get caught up in causes, often doomed by the tide of history or by their own inability to understand the context of their own times. Sometimes, as in Carlos’ case, the means didn’t justify the ends because the means were too extreme to create widespread support. At their most basic, such cinema makes you think about how far is too far in working for a cause.
These films are fictions, not documentaries, but, in truth, the people at the foci of these films have become myths or anti-heroes: they no longer exist in the realm of “mere” facts, to lesser and greater degrees. You wouldn’t want to rely on fictional movies for history lessons, but they’re an interesting entry-point to further exploration.
One note of warning: Carlos the movie is a six-hour mini-series. A truncated version running about two-and-half hours is an honorable attempt to tell a coherent version of the whole, but it fails in several ways. It leaves out vital transitions, it gives less explanation for Carlos’ inevitable decline, omits important instances of his cruelty, and includes characters whose relationship to Carlos is unclear without the context of the full six hours. The mini-series is currently available on-demand through the Sundance Channel.