Beyond Bullets and Berets, Life in Wartime
By MANOHLA DARGIS
Published: October 22, 2010
"I'm a soldier, I'm not a martyr," Carlos the Jackal announces in
"Carlos," Olivier Assayas's fictionalization of the life and brutal
times of the Marxist turned mercenary. Carlos delivers this line in
1975 during a re-creation of a heated exchange with the radical true
believers with whom he has taken OPEC ministers hostage. It was one
of the more spectacular operations in his career as a self-professed
professional revolutionary, and he had carefully dressed for the part
in a black beret and leather jacket meant to invoke Che Guevara, pop
The distinction between soldier and martyr is crucial for what it
says about Carlos, whose revolutionary rhetoric will grow
increasingly hollow as the movie goes on, and for what it says about
his time and our own, with its armies of soldiers and martyrs. Like
Steven Soderbergh's "Che," a 2008 gloss on Ernesto Guevara, and "The
Baader Meinhof Complex," a 2008 drama about West German terrorists,
"Carlos" examines left-wing militancy from the inside out. Although
these movies take place in the past, they often speak more potently
to the Sept. 11 world than most mainstream fiction films that try to
address terror head-on, partly because each is set at the
intersection of idealism and violence.
Hollywood movies don't often cross that intersection, and even
nominally political films prefer to keep idealism and violence
separate and neatly embodied by clear-cut heroes and villains. In the
2007 studio release "Rendition" Jake Gyllenhaal plays a young analyst
for the Central Intelligence Agency whose conscience is stirred to
action when, on an assignment abroad, he witnesses the torture of a
prisoner who's been wrongly suspected of terrorism and secretly
detained. The film ends with the analyst freeing the prisoner and
reaching out to a newspaper to spread the truth to the world, which
would be more stirring if there was evidence that news reports about
such wartime horrors inspired more than well-meaning movies.
A similar idealist gesture caps "Green Zone," which came out in March
and stars Matt Damon as an American military officer who, after
failing to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and discovering
that the intelligence he used was cooked, also contacts the media.
For all their differences, "Rendition" and "Green Zone," like most
mainstream fare, turn on the commercial imperative that the bad times
have to come to an end when the movies do, preferably with a pricked
conscience or some righteous payback. Movies like these don't just
come to their inevitable end, say, by dropping a curtain on the whole
mess and letting you stagger toward the exit with your own
conclusions. They insist that everyone learn a lesson, the viewer most of all.
Although the terrorist born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez preaches his own
gospel in "Carlos," Mr. Assayas refrains from doing the same. There
are no teachable moments in his movie. Throughout Carlos enjoys the
spotlight that warmed him and with the lovers who protected him,
the journalists who covered him and the dictators who hired him
helped turn him into a myth. ("Saddam," a Hussein toady coos
seductively, "talks about you a great deal.") Nothing if not
contradictory, Carlos was an anti-imperialist who liked luxury and
bought the Che-style beret he wore for the OPEC raid in a Vienna
boutique, completing his look with a Beretta and a leather jacket
from Pierre Cardin. If Mr. Assayas's Carlos looks like a star it's
because the real man was.
Carlos certainly often behaves more like one of the bad boys of
cinema than one of the severe jihadists who show up every so often in
the movies waving machine guns and chanting about God. Mr. Assayas
plays on that familiarity, partly by casting a lead whose good looks
play into the common assumption (sometimes shared by critics) that
the leading character, especially if he's a brooding beauty, is not
just the story's hero but also its moral center. But while "Carlos"
often looks like an Hollywood-style action film, like "Che" and "The
Baader Meinhof Complex," it also cannily employs some of the devices
including a sense of ambiguity and ambivalent characters of the
classic art cinema.
Like Carlos, the title character in "Che," Mr. Soderbergh's two-part,
more than four hour epic, is certainly self-aware of his own image,
as when, dressed in his soldier's uniform, he asks for a touch of
powder before being interviewed on American television. The movie is
largely organized around significant battles first in Cuba and then
in Bolivia where Che was killed which gives the whole thing the
feel of an extended war movie. There's a certain redundant quality to
the narrative, as one jungle battleground is displaced by another,
but the emphasis on grinding action also expresses the passion of
Che, who, at one point, explains that what motivates the
revolutionary is "love."
This idea appears in "Socialism and the New Man," one of Che's final
and oft-quoted essays. ("Let me say, with the risk of appearing
ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings
of love.") You hear a somewhat differently translated version of this
line over images of Che and his men hiding in the Cuban jungle, their
faces slicked with sweat and guns at the ready, seconds before they
ambush a squad of soldiers. (One of Che's men is played by Édgar
Ramírez, the star of "Carlos.") As he does throughout his movie, Mr.
Soderbergh delivers this juxtaposition between love and bullets
without overt comment, a dissatisfying tactic for those seeking a
verdict instead of a diagnosis.
With "Che," Mr. Soderbergh eschews blunt ideological argument and
instead offers up a topical and resonant image of a near-messianic
revolutionary leader surmounting seemingly impossible odds in
inhospitable terrain. In "Che" the world smolders, as if in
preparation for the coming conflagrations. In "Carlos" and "The
Baader Meinhof Complex" it burns. Some of that heat comes from their
resonance: both fill in some prehistory of contemporary revolutionary
movements in the Middle East and work as cautionary tales about the
perversions of idealism. An ideologue turned dedicated mercenary,
bungler, opportunist and relic, Carlos is absurd and murderously
real, much like the young guerrillas in "The Baader Meinhof Complex,"
which feverishly begins with a cry to arms and a quote from Che and
devolves into sadism and ideological squabbling.
In turning history into story, all three movies exclude material that
might get in the way of their chosen narratives. Mr. Soderbergh put
an intermission between Cuba and Bolivia instead of the military
trials that Che presided over and that left accused war criminals
tried in the morning and dead by the afternoon. Mr. Assayas overlooks
the Swiss Nazi François Genoud, a friend of Carlos the Jackal's and
later a source of financial support. Mr. Assayas perhaps omitted
Genoud (who died in 1996 at 81) because a friendship between a Nazi
and a self-proclaimed Marxist, who were united by their anti-Zionism
and support of militant Palestinian causes, might have sent the movie
off the rails.
Genoud does make a hair-raising appearance in Barbet Schroeder's 2007
documentary "Terror's Advocate," as an associate of Jacques Vergès, a
lawyer whose anti-colonialist loathing is so virulent and whose
politics are so convoluted that he defended both the Nazi war
criminal Klaus Barbie (a k a. the Butcher of Lyon) and Carlos the
Jackal. Mr. Schroder coolly lays out the connections between Mr.
Vergès's left-wing and right-wing associates, largely letting the
historical players speak for themselves amid archival images and
snippets from "The Battle of Algiers," Gillo Pontecorvo's influential
1966 cri de coeur about the Algerian fight for independence. Mr.
Schroeder doesn't embellish the facts with commentary; he doesn't
need to with such far-out, freaky material. Mr. Assayas should have bit.
Granted, it might have been tricky fitting in Genoud between the
swaggering violence and pliant chicks, and throwing a Nazi into the
mix would have complicated Carlos's casually voiced anti-Zionism.
Even so, as time passes and the blood rises, Mr. Assayas builds an
argument about terrorism that strips the glamour off it inch by inch,
specifically in scenes of people being executed, including the
pregnant wife of a French embassy employee who opens her door to the
assassin who kills her, her unborn child and husband. At that moment,
the vestigial idealism that clung to the revolutionary struggles
Carlos once signed on with is snuffed out, extinguished through an
act of intergenerational murder that speaks to the legacy of
terrorism-without-end and foreshadows an age of car bombs, high body
counts and nihilistic, annihilating violence.
It's a grim moment in a movie that, for all its sexy guitar licks and
hot revolutionary babes, is nothing if not tragic. In their different
ways and with divergent ends, "Carlos," "Che" and "The Baader Meinhof
Complex" explore the extremes of left-wing ideologies that, with the
end of the Cold War, exited the world stage, leaving the mainstream
left to drift toward the center. If these movies can tell that story
so persuasively it's partly because they belong to the past while the
revolutionary movements represented in a film like "Green Zone"
belong to a present with no end in sight.
Carlos film review: Biopic brings Day of the real Jackal
By David Edwards
Following The Baader Meinhof Complex and the two Mesrine movies, our
fascination with global criminals shows no sign of abating.
Now we have a biopic of Carlos the Jackal that's being released in
both a full, five-and-a-half-hour version and in an abridged cut.
This review is based on the latter.
Convincingly played by Edgar Ramirez, the world's most notorious
criminal started life as a Marx-spouting lawyer before setting up a
terror group in the 1970s.
And throughout that decade and on until the 1990s, he became a gun
for hire. From pro-Palestinian bombings to a breathtaking episode
where he holds OPEC ministers hostage, that bum-numbing running-time flies by.
With a magnificent performance from Ramirez and a script that teaches
us a few uncomfortable political truths, here's an engrossing and