If international terrorism is as tedious as Carlos makes it appear, it’s a wonder anyone ever signs up. Director Olivier Assayas’s epic miniseries, which aired in the United States on the IFC network, tracks anti-imperialist radical Carlos the Jackal, whose real name is Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, from the start of his infamous career to the end, and along the way I struggled through a convoluted soup of allegiances, counter-allegiances, compromises, negotiations, and betrayals. At different points, Carlos is working for the Iraqis, then alongside the Iraqis, then hiding in Syria from the Iraqis. A crucial operation fails because of an offense to Libya, but later Libya enlists him to carry out another. He is in league with the East German Stasi and the Soviets, and he’s harbored in Hungary, until at least one or two of those groups turn their backs on him. If I got any of the details wrong ... well, I probably got some of the details wrong, and I haven’t even mentioned the French, the Saudis, or the Algerians.
Assayas proves at least this much about multinational idealist struggles: they’re difficult to follow. When he begins, Carlos’s passion is pure, his principles firm and unyielding; he criticizes a friend for standing on the sidelines, talking politics in coffee shops. But over time, as he gains notoriety, power, and money, lots of money — revolution is expensive — he spends more and more of his time nurturing relationships to maintain his influence, because you’re only as strong as your strongest friends. Carlos’s ideals get lost in the constant grab for power, but so does the story, in a quagmire of secondary and tertiary characters and subplots. The minutiae of strategy meetings and new alliances halt the film’s momentum in its tracks; we slog through exposition trying to get to the story.
The film is at its best when dealing with Carlos himself, played by Édgar Ramírez in a charismatic performance that suggests a man whose socialist convictions very thinly conceal the exercise of his ego. He claims to be willing to die for his cause, but even his humility is a form of arrogance — it’s not the cause he wants us to respect but his courage. “I am a marked man,” he says often. “There is a price on my head.” He takes a fatalistic approach; he knows his days are numbered. But he takes pride in being notorious. The price on his head is a badge of honor, and upon his inevitable defeat he expects to be sanctified as a martyr, but watch him closely when he attempts to resolve a failed operation in the second episode: given the opportunity to sacrifice himself for the mission, he instead insists to his more zealous comrades, “The cause needs us alive!” Ramírez plays the scene just right, puffing his chest with righteous indignation as he stages a tactical retreat from his beliefs.
They say power is an aphrodisiac, and the film features the usual obligatory scenes of beautiful women attracted to his dangerous mystique. His weapon is an extension of his body, he tells one woman; yeah, I’ll bet. Those scenes aren’t very interesting, but Carlos isn’t immune to the erotic satisfaction of his own success. His power is the measure of his virility, and the film compellingly bookends his story with sexual symbolism; in an early scene he leaves the bath and then admires his naked body in a mirror, where he seems to briefly stroke himself, but later, as the walls are closing in, he undergoes medical treatment for sore testicles and a low sperm count. Once a fit sexual and political dynamo, he has become irrelevant as a revolutionary and impotent as a man. He continues to insist that there is a price on his head, trying to convince himself as much as anyone else, but there is no one left in the world who would bother to pay it.
Among the overpopulated supporting cast are a few standouts. The most memorable is Hans-Joachim Klein, codename “Angie.” Played by Christoph Bach, he gives the film important thematic perspective. He’s the first to question Carlos’s convictions, and after he’s shot during the taking of prisoners in Austria, he reevaluates his principles and disappears. Eventually, he’s located by a fellow German activist, with whom he discusses the deterioration of their values in the wake of an operation in which German terrorists singled out Jewish hostages. “Like Auschwitz,” Angie says. In describing their movement’s loss of integrity, he encapsulates Carlos’s rise and fall, and predicts the ultimate defeat of their cause. Angie, in this, one of the film’s most effective scenes, proves to be the last idealist in a world full of nihilists.
Carlos harkens back to a time of terrorist as freedom fighter, when the wanton violence was committed by young bohemian activists working towards social justice, before religious fanaticism became the raison d'être. (Both causes, however, have tried to hang their hats on the Palestinian liberation movement.) What’s the difference between Carlos’s band of idealized murderers and, say, al-Qaeda? Well, Carlos and his militants looked more like “us,” pretty, well-dressed, and well-educated, and therefore more easily romanticized, though in the end just as willing to kill innocents in order to defend innocents. I can’t recommend the film as strongly as I would like to; cluttered with geopolitical machinations, it sometimes feels more like a flow chart than a movie. But it contains an effective character study and an interesting picture of terrorism as seen from within and from without: it claims to be about freedom, but mostly it comes down to power.
Watch a trailer for the miniseries here: