‘Carlos’: Terrorist action hero

October 15, 2010

There’s been a lot of excitement about Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos,” the French miniseries that showed this week on the Sundance Channel and which opens – in both a 2:45 and five-hour-plus version – today (10/15/10) in arthouses.


It’s not hard to see why. “Carlos” tells a mostly thrilling story of international derring-do, following Ilich Ramirez Sanchez – a Venezuelan Marxist whose nomme de guerre was Carlos the Jackal – as he ran roughshod over Europe and the Middle East in the 1970s.


But here’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.


A self-styled freedom fighter for the Palestinian cause (though he himself was neither of Semitic extraction nor Muslim), Carlos aligned himself with so-called internationalist liberation groups. Tied at first to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, he cut a swath with high-profile bombings, murders and, his magnum opus, the kidnapping of the OPEC oil ministers from a meeting in Vienna in 1975.


But most of Carlos’ actions were either failures, went against his leaders’ orders or accomplished nothing, aside from killing innocent people and enlarging Carlos’ reputation. Yet Assayas’ film, which casts Edgar Ramirez as the fierce, resolute Carlos, presents him as a militant revolutionary (who is also an opportunist).


The film is epic in both scope and length – able to create historical context and exciting action while focusing on the interpersonal drama between Carlos, the women in his life and the cause he supposedly serves. Eventually he begins to get high on headlines, positing himself as a brand-name terrorist whose participation in an action can attract the kind of media attention these hyenas feed on.


Interestingly, the second half of Jean-Francois Richet’s four-hour “Mesrine” double-bill earlier this year showed the bank robber mouthing political dogma, aligning himself with political radicals of that same period, in the way Carlos does. The difference is that Mesrine himself knows he’s full of shit – but Assayas seems to take Carlos as seriously as he takes himself.


I recognize that we make films all the time that explore the lives, motives and psychology of outlaws, criminals and killers: John Dillinger, Jesse James, Billy the Kid.


But there’s a difference between Dillinger and, say, Jeffrey Dahmer. Or Ted Bundy. Or Carlos. Not that you couldn’t make a film about Dahmer – but certainly not one that glamorized him or his deeds.


One of my favorite films last year was “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” a movie set at roughly the same period as “Carlos,” about a group of political radicals. The real Baader-Meinhof group was fighting against German complicity in the American war in Vietnam, in the same way that the Weathermen in the United States were also trying to stop a war, whether their methods were right or wrong.


Again, you have to draw a distinction between the Weathermen, for example, and another well-known group of the mid-1970s: the crackpot Symbionese Liberation Army that kidnapped Patty Hearst, terrorized California and murdered a couple of innocent people.


I see a distinction between the Baader-Meinhof gang and Carlos the Jackal. It comes back to the random, misguided violence of terrorism. There’s a difference between being a revolutionary (which Carlos postured as) and a murderer.


Yes, there are killings and murders in liberations struggles – that’s the nature of a freedom struggle. (Never mind that the majority of liberation struggles and revolutions ultimately produced a subsequent tyranny that was, in some ways, worse than the system that was overthrown.)


Films about the French resistance to the Nazis (and recent films about the resistance in Norway and Denmark) offer similar terrorist activities – but, again, these were resistance movements against a fascist oppressor. It’s one thing to fight the Nazis; it’s something else to say, I’m ready to slaughter innocent people and blow up the world to draw attention to a cause that has nothing to do with the victims of my action.


Terrorists paint a larger, more random canvas. They may be incensed over Israel’s failure to grant Palestinians a homeland (or Israel’s very existence), but they express it by flying airplanes into American buildings, blowing up subways in London and Spain and the like.


In Carlos’ case, he murdered French officials because Mossad tracked and killed some of the planners of the Munich Olympics massacre in France. Kidnapping the OPEC ministers (and killing people who got in his way) was meant to send a message to Arab governments that weren’t sufficiently anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian.


So, yes, “Carlos” is a compelling film. And it ends with Carlos – older, fat, sick, irrelevant – being snatched by the French from Sudan in the late 1990s for crimes he committed in the 1970s – which is as it should be.


But a film that makes him the action hero – and trust me, there are many more viewers out there who will see him that way than as a misguided loser with guns and bombs – is wrong-headed. It’s like making “Munich” – but making heroes of the terrorists who slaughtered Israeli athletes.


Last week, Salon.com critic Andrew O’Hehir compared “Secretariat” to a Leni Riefenstahl propaganda film. I think the same charge can be made with much more validity about “Carlos”: that it is propaganda, glorifying a terrorist killer.


Sorry, but I don’t see much defense for that.



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