Carlos (Don’t Let It Go To Your Head)

Carlos (dir. Olivier Assayas 2010)

Six hours later I’m finally done with Carlos the miniseries! Man, it was a slog. And this is coming from a guy who loves Doctor Zhivago.  But I had to do it. Carlos is, after all, the film that beat The Social Network in Film Comment’s list of ten best films of 2010Carlos is a three part miniseries about the Venezuelan born terrorist Carlos “the Jackal” Martinez. It chronicles the terrorist activities he conducted throughout Europe in the name of Palestinian liberation and his ensuing international stardom, or whatever the equivalent of stardom is in terrorist terms. I guess you’re not a star like say the Olsen twins. Notoriety, maybe?

The miniseries is broken into three parts. Part 1 is the buildup of Carlos’s persona and his allied groups. Part 2 revolves around their crowning achievement, the hijacking of a 1975 OPEC conference. Part 3 focuses on Carlos’s decline and disillusionment with the cause.

There were parts of the film I really loved. The ineptitude of the terrorists during their early operations is equal parts scary and hilarious. One of the darkest comic moments occurs when a member of the Japanese Red Army wants to make a statement to his French hostages so he shoots a picture of the French President in front of everyone. It’s a powerful moment until the victimized French Ambassador informs the Red Army member that this particular president already died earlier in the year.

In addition, the small details were very effective. For instance, Carlos’s love of American cigarettes. In almost every scene someone is smoking and they’re never smoking hand rolled cigarettes. It’s always some major tobacco brand. I think Marlboro is the most frequent. It’s a subtle bit of commentary. Here you have this world-renowned terrorist who denounces capitalism, brands, the United States, whatever, but he can’t escape the reach of the major cigarette companies. Even in the middle of the Syrian dessert he’s sucking down the same cowboy killers they smoke in Branson, Missouri.

Unfortunately, like most bio-pics, Carlos can feel like you’re watching a “Best Of”. The acting is great and the characters are as fully realized as they can be but it’s hard to really understand their motivations when the film keeps rushing toward the next plot point.  Carlos could’ve benefited from a limit in scope. The most exciting and tense part of the film is the seizure of the OPEC meeting in part 2. It’s the closest we get to an extended sequence played in real time. You can feel the weight of the situation as Carlos and his men struggle to negotiate terms. You can also feel their triumph begin to slip away once they’ve left Austria. With a little embellishment the OPEC raid could be a movie in and of itself.

The film can be also confusing, especially with references to so many institutions that go by a goddamn acronym, the PFLP, JRA, OPEC, CIA, at one point I think Carlos is even delivering packages for DHL.  And I was hindered by my poor geography skills. Where is Algeria anyway? And is it really that far from Iraq? Apparently. Also, like every action/spy/terrorist movie set in Europe, fake passports abound. Apparently all you needed in the seventies to make a passport were a couple chintzy photo booth photos and an exacto knife. Like no wonder this dude was on the lam for thirty years. Can we at least check a thumbprint, something?

Then of course the film emphasizes, in not so subtle fashion, the link between Carlos’s desire for power and his vanity/sexual desire. He sleeps with a ton of women. He stands naked in front of  an open window. No joke he even receives lypo-suction while hiding out in Sudan. A country not widely regarded for their lypo-suction facilities.  But the link between violence and sex is never more obvious than when he has a girlfriend lick and bite the pin of a live grenade during a seduction. This was the era before sexting so I guess people did stuff like that.

Lastly, Carlos made me realize that Europe has been dealing with terrorism for a long time. I guess in my U.S. centric mind I’ve always thought of terrorism as a uniquely 21st century problem. This film however opened my eyes the vast networks of terrorists that have been operating in secret since Carter was in the White House. It’s also interesting to hear the names of all these middle east figures,  many of whom have recently fallen out of power, back when they were still revered by  some. Saddam Hussein, Momar Qaddafi. There was a time when they weren’t being overthrown but were doing the overthrowing.

In conclusion I’ll just say that even at six hours Carlos is worth checking out.  It’s chronicles an interesting character and  takes pains to show him as fallible and human. Netflix is streaming both the miniseries and the theatrical versions of the film so if you’ve ever got half a day to kill…



Random Notes:

Anybody remember when French intellectuals were down on Sarkozy because he enjoyed jogging? Some papers even called running a right wing activity. Well Carlos is a militant leftist… and it’s true we don’t ever see him run for pleasure in the film… so maybe they’re on to something…

At one point Carlos has been in hiding and he comes back completely out of shape with a massive gut. I always kind of envy actors who’re required to gain weight for a role. I’d love to be paid just to sit around and fucking eat all day.

The actor, Edgar Ramirez who plays Carlos-

reminded me of Javier Bardem-

and Javier Bardem reminds me of a lion.

Also, what do terrorists do on a day to day basis? We’re never given the answer. Sure, they have the occasional meeting. Yeah, they hijack and kill and whatever. But the movie takes place over twenty or so years and I’m still unclear what Carlos was doing during all the years in between his major operations. What do these crazy powerful, but completely hidden, people do all day? Are they literally just sitting around plotting and eating Doritos?

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