Calling out films for glorifying historical monsters is something of a hobby of mine, to the point where I consider myself something of a connoisseur, so it disturbs me to the depth of my soul when I encounter the rare instance of a professional critic doing the same thing and I'm forced to bellow (as always, quietly and to myself) "You're doing it wrong!!!" Such was the case with Marshall Fine's review of Carlos, Olivier Assayas's massive, five-and-a-half hour film about Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, a left-wing terrorist better known as Carlos the Jackal. In his review, Marshall Fine says things like this:
[H]ere’s my objection to “Carlos”: that, in presenting a terrorist as an action hero, it glorifies terrorism as a legitimate path of political action.
Here’s the bottom line: Would people be singing the praises of this film if it was equally well-made, just as thrilling and exciting – but was the story of Mohamed Atta? A terrorist is a terrorist. Murder is murder.
But, except, no. Carlos, which is being released on DVD tomorrow by Criterion, is not like this at all. Carlos, the character, played with a strong and subtle mix of confidence, cowardice, ruthlessness, and incompetence by Edgar Ramirez, is, in Assayas's film, ultimately a murderous fool. He's the kind of man who is ready, happily ready, to kill for his cause -- leftist struggles, mainly, in the film, in support of Palestine -- when he thinks he can get away with it, but pretty quick to shove his cause into the backseat when he thinks his own physical person is about to be driven off a cliff. As he says at one point in the film "I am a soldier, not a martyr", this in defense of his decision to sell the safety a freedom of a group of hostages taken during a raid on an OPEC conference in Vienna, with at least one of those hostages, the Saudi oil minister, pegged for execution -- this is such a certainty at one point that Carlos sits down with the man and explains why he must be killed. But then Carlos's skin is suddenly on the line, and dollar signs are in his eyes, and things change.
Any charge of glorification must come down to a few basic features of Assayas's film: Carlos's political passion, his physical attractiveness, and the associated fact that he gets laid a lot. On the first count, there's an early scene where Carlos energetically explains to his Cuban wife his new commitment to violent revolution. This turns into an argument, during which Carlos says "Behind every bullet will be an idea!" Now, depending on how awful you are, you might believe that's some pretty deep and invigorating shit, but does Assayas? And even if he does, or did, is Carlos depicted as someone for whom even that ridiculousness has any meaning? When he hurls a grenade into a drugstore (one owned by a Jew, Carlos very specifically informs the authorities at one point) and we later hear that witnesses saw women and children, after the blast, lying in pools of blood, what does "Behind every bullet will be an idea" mean, if it ever meant anything? It didn't, of course, but can it even sort of halfway sound good any longer?
Assayas's film is a masterclass in handling this kind of material without resorting to the hard sell. Indeed, it may be too subtle for its own good, to judge by the Marshall Fines and Armond Whites (he also strenuously objected to Carlos) of the world, though that's a comparison that may well be unfair to one or the other of them. But, for example, very late in the film, Carlos has grown fat, he's slow, and, most importantly, his testicles are malfunctioning. This is both historically true and artistically perfect -- a happy accident, from Assayas's point of view. We're about four-and-a-half to five hours into Carlos by the time this happens, but I imagine it wouldn't be hard to cast your mind back to the first half hour of the film, when Carlos is shown getting out of bed and standing naked in front of a full-length mirror, admiring his own physique and even briefly fondling his genitals. This scene, also, comes immediately after the aforementioned "behind every bullet" scene, and in that scene Carlos's then wife (who he will send away, with their child, and never contact again) says he's arrogant and is more interested in glory than any political ideal. So the arrogance and physique lead both to cowardice -- he's too shallow to be a martyr, perhaps -- and, you know, getting laid a lot. The rock star image that Assayas cultivates for Carlos in the film is done so specifically to tear it down. Carlos's own basking in it is part of the film's withering critique.
Carlos's extensive running time is broken into three parts, and in fact aired as a miniseries on French television (the fact that, in the US, it is regarded as a "film", rather than a piece of television -- despite the fact that it aired on IFC parallel to its theatrical release -- is further evidence of the continued, but selective, blurring of the lines between those two mediums), and part two is largely given over to the OPEC raid. This is Assayas's centerpiece -- everything that came before was building to it, everything that came after simply a falling away from it. It's Carlos's Lufthansa heist, if you will. There are several things that are key to this very long sequence, not least among them the brutal murders carried out by Carlos and one of his compatriots, Nada (Julia Hummer), and also not least of which is Nada herself. German by birth, Gabriele Kröcher-Tiedemann's nickname, Nada, which of course means "nothing" in Carlos's native tongue, might be considered another of those historical happy accidents, like Carlos's ball troubles. The woman is a moral blank, in other words, her credentials for joining Carlos on the OPEC raid being that she did two years in prison for shooting a cop, but "unfortunately I only wounded him." She makes sure not to wound anyone she takes aim at during the raid, however, and Nada helps to condemn Carlos in a "the company you keep" sort of way. She also stirred up the most anger in me personally, with her focus on killing policemen, and, if I may be allowed a brief aside, the refusal, at the moment of her eventual capture, of the police to kill her right back. I was reminded of a college class I took in modern Irish history, and my professor discussing seeing Neil Jordan's film Michael Collins and how, during that film's depiction of Bloody Sunday, 1920, he was crying out for the IRA, under Collins, to hurry up and "kill him!", referring to one of their various targets. So thought I, with the gender pronouns reversed, as armed police, who have been fired upon, chase Nada down the street, not shooting her for some crazy reason. There is an irony in parallelling these two stories that I'm not missing, but I'm able to acknowledge that while still wishing, on film and in reality, that they'd shot her.
Anyway, Nada comes to represent what Carlos would be if his head was as fogged with terrorist furor as he lets on. Not that he's not a terrorist, because he is, but unlike many terrorists, Nada included, he's not willing to die for his cause. And his cowardice both outrages those working under him, like Nada, and just happens, because morally Carlos couldn't give a shit, saves the lives of the hostages. Nada would die and take everyone else with her. Carlos is more wily, but with greater brain function -- Nada really is, slight a figure though she strikes, pretty much a dumb animal -- comes individual limits, and Carlos's mental limit comes sooner than he's willing to admit. The OPEC raid is a spectacular failure for the cause, and for him personally, and Assayas comes close to outright mocking him during this stretch. The ludicrous bungling of the DC-9 transport, and the beautifully portrayed reaction by Ramirez to the information, delivered by the patient German pilot sadly roped into this madness, that yes, you demanded a DC-9 and you got a DC-9, but a DC-9 does not have the fuel capacity to take you where you want to go, renders Carlos a total fool. The respect he demands from everyone just crumbles, to the point where when he releases the two pilots to go rest up, and extends his hand to them to show he appreciates their honorable behavior, they both walk right by him, because they know what he is. He's a villain, first off, but the plane screw-up revealed there's not even much of a brain at work. He's a monster, but somehow not a threat to them. This is as close as Carlos comes to a real crowd-pleasing moment, and it pleased me enormously. I feel like in this moment, and with these pilots, Assayas is providing the audience an audience surrogate. Normal people get a look into Carlos's world -- a look that doesn't immediately precede their death or injury -- and show only disdain.
Time and time again, Carlos, in Carlos, is portrayed this way, his image sent up, if without humor than at least with derision. Curiously, though politics are constantly discussed by the characters, Carlos isn't quite a political film, as such. In that the politics that Carlos is trying to represent are neither embraced or rejected. They are only presented. It is the methods that are rejected, and the person at the center of the film. There's a reason Carlos is never referred to as "the Jackal", and that this fearsome nickname is never even uttered: to tear down the image, Assayas starts by stripping away the most famous part of it. What's left is just Carlos, petty, stupid, cowardly, villainous, and a killer. What's not to admire?