REVIEW: Carlos [2010]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 334 minutes | Release Date: May 19th, 2010 (France)
Studio: Canal+ / IFC Films
Director(s): Olivier Assayas
Writer(s): Olivier Assayas, Dan Franck & Daniel Leconte

“Sudden bloody terror”

Kudos to Dan Franck and Olivier Assayas—who also directed—for doing the research and having the skill necessary to pull off an epic such as Carlos. Originally created as a three-part, five and a half hour miniseries for Canal Plus in Europe, the work became a sensation, debuting at Cannes and eventually being scooped up for American distribution in its entirety and as a two and a half hour theatrical version. While I can admit the complete piece drags at times in the beginning and especially at the end, I do not see how anyone could have chopped more than half its runtime away and retained its gravitas. This is what I believed Steven Soderbergh’s Che would be, the telling of a revolutionary/terrorist—depending on your allegiances—from humble beginnings, gaining notoriety through the media until his reign’s fated end.

A Marxist, Third World apologist, soldier against Zionists and capitalists, celebrity playboy, and ultimately a mercenary, actor Édgar Ramírez embodies all. Just a Venezuelan-born PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) member trained in Lebanon by Iraqi military approaching terrorist leader Wadie Hadded (Ahmad Kaabour) for a chance to lead the resistance despite only being twenty, Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka Carlos, would soon become the face of an international network of communists fighting against the Western world. The eventual right-hand man to Hadded—against the leader’s best judgment due to the soldier’s inability to follow orders—he gains power and clout, becoming feared the world around as a man ready to die and seemingly without care for life itself.

The comparisons to Che Guevara are unavoidable since both were political warriors who soon got caught up in their own image and supposed invincibility by going to whatever nation might benefit from their talents—and the beret worn in Part Two doesn’t hurt. But while Che became embroiled in guerilla warfare and wars for independence, Carlos was, plain and simply, a terrorist willing to do anything for the cause and to punish those against it. Unafraid to throw a bomb into a crowded pharmacy, take diplomats hostage at an OPEC meeting, or put hits out on government officials at their embassies abroad, he fought for survival, for a movement, and ultimately for his life. A hired hand with the connections to assassinate anyone, he gets into bed with Saddam Hussein for oil money and with Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi to take out Egypt’s Mohammed Anwar El-Sadat, amongst others.

To me, what makes the whole two-decade look into Carlos’s life interesting is how little he actually accomplished. A man with big plans and massive ambition, besides a few bombings and revenge killings, his missions didn’t have a great track record of success. Part One shows the young soldier aggressively walk into Hadded’s world to become a co-leader of the PFLP’s European branch in London, following orders and slowly setting himself apart from his counterpart in France, Michel ‘André’ Moukharbal (Fadi Abi Samra). Always wary of André’s strategizing and mettle to stay strong for the cause, Carlos begins taking matters into his own hands, organizing a group of Japanese terrorists to stage a kidnapping in order to get a captured comrade released. Showing his lack of remorse for innocents dying for a message, this first segment ends with a highly volatile shootout to firmly entrench his legend and build the confidence to set into motion his ‘claim to fame’.

A sort of exposition, but with a ton of historical events to help us flesh out who Carlos is, Part One is a wonderful introduction to the man and his ideals; Part Two, however, is where all memory of Ilich disappears. Dealing mostly with the 1975 OPEC meeting raid, bankrolled by Hussein, this middle third is a tense look into the inner-workings of a politically inspired hostage situation. Tasked to make sure Saudia Arabia’s oilmen, including Sheikh Yamani (Badih Abou Chakra), didn’t make it home alive, Carlos and his team, consisting of a couple Muslims and a couple German Revolutionaries, took the building and received a DC9 to fly everyone to Baghdad after Austrian authorities read a statement on air. It is a fascinating tale with numerous missteps, political ally reversals, and hard choices. Seen as Carlos’s crowning moment of terror, the event pushed him to create his own cell based in Syria. Unfortunately, the emancipation was not amicable and began his slow descent into obsolescence.

Perhaps it is because Part Two was so enthralling, or maybe that I was already three and a half consecutive hours in, but the final installment is the one piece I feel could have been shortened. The pacing lags in spots and the whole thing deals with a fall from grace, coinciding with the end of the Communist Bloc. Some of the best acting is included, from Ramírez, Alexander Scheer as German Johannes Weinrich, Talal El-Jordi as Syrian Kamal ‘Ali’ al-Issawi, and Nora von Waldstätten as Carlos’s wife Magdalena Kopp. Spanning around ten years, this look at the twilight of his career is rife the problems. Having a wife doesn’t stop the womanizing, his partners Weinrich and Ali work tirelessly for two years to get at El-Sadat before getting beat to the punch, and sloppy tactics find the German and Magdalena in a Parisian jail. This incarceration and his celebrity going to his head leads to more bad decisions, government alienation, and Carlos’s eventual extradition to France, ending his career with a life sentence and not his assumed murder.

Assayas’s handle on the proceedings is fantastic, cutting between a myriad of information and locations while almost always showing how characters’ stories end. A disclaimer at the start warns how much of Carlos is fictionalized gray area to bolster the facts and assumptions known since he was only ever charged with the killing of French policemen before the OPEC incident, but, fact or not, it is all very entertaining. There are some intriguing characters along the way too, with some of the best being Rodney El Haddad’s Khalid, Julia Hummer’s Nada, and, possibly my favorite, Christoph Bach’s conflicted political militant Hans-Joachim ‘Angie’ Klein. But, you cannot deny the presence of Édgar Ramírez’s transformation into Carlos. Without even mentioning the weight fluctuation before and after OPEC, this is a star-making performance. A fan since his English-language debut in Domino, he deserves all accolades for a role that depicts a monster with purpose. Very much a terrorist, you can’t deny the absolute dedication to his cause—and maybe even respect it.

[1] Édgar Ramírez as Carlos The Jackal in CARLOS directed by Olivier Assayas. A Sundance Channel Presentation/IFC Films Release. ©Film en Stock
[2] (L to R) Badih Abou Chakra as Cheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Alejandro Arroyo as Valentin Hernandez Acosta and Édgar Ramírez as Carlos The Jackal in CARLOS directed by Olivier Assayas. A Sundance Channel Presentation/IFC Films Release. ©Film en Stock

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