[Note: This review refers to the uncut version now playing on Sundance Channel and traveling the country in a “road show” format. I can only speculate on how the shorter 166-minute cut, playing in arthouse theatres across the country, compares.]
I’ve said it before: docudramas and biopics are tough. Too frequently, they either skim the surface of real-life events or, in their quest to give an inherently uncinematic story a three-act structure, fictionalize it to the point that it shouldn’t actually qualify as fact-based. To that end, Carlos has two advantages over the typical biopic/docudrama: it doesn’t try to perpetuate myths about its subjects, and it has the luxury of a five-and-a-half hour runtime. Ironically, though, it’s a bit too long.
The film introduces us to Ilich Ramírez Sánchez in 1973, when he is given the infamous code name “Carlos.” He would later be known as “Carlos the Jackal” when authorities found a copy of Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal (about a terrorist plot to assassinate Charles de Gaulle) among his possessions, but the film never acknowledges it. To call him Carlos the Jackal would fall into the trap of mythologizing a terrorist, which is the opposite of director/co-writer Olivier Assayas’s objective.
Carlos, Venezuelan by birth, was educated in Cuba, Moscow, and London in economic theory and guerrilla warfare. When we first meet him, he seems to be living the humble life of an academic, happy with a wife and child. He has a violent streak, though, when it comes to fighting for the rights of the downtrodden working class. As he sees it, both capitalism and communism have failed, because they’ve both created a wealthy ruling class and a destitute peasant class. Carlos’s primary desire is to change the equation, by inflicting terror on those responsible for propping up the ruling class at the expense of the peasants.
He’s a part of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), an anti-Israel organization funded by most of the Middle East. The PFLP has ties to the Soviet Union, who secretly supports their actions in order to gain access to their oil. Although the group is largely anti-Semitic and Carlos has no problems with any particular religion or race, he participates in their racially motivated activities because he believes, at their core, the PFLP is fighting to preserve the rights of the oppressed masses. After all, in his mind Israel was a construct of corrupt governments taking land without permission.
The first third of the film focuses on Carlos’s rise to power within the PFLP. His combination of intelligence and fearlessness makes him a valued asset in the group, despite a couple of early failures. The middle third of the film focuses almost entirely on his most famous moment: the botched 1975 attack on OPEC’s Vienna headquarters. After that, he’s expelled from the PFLP. Carlos angrily proclaims he’ll start his own organization, and he does—with the help of longtime associate Johannes (Alexander Scheer) and the cooperation of the Syrian and Lebanese governments. Johannes introduces Carlos to his girlfriend, Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldstätten), whom Carlos first steals from Johannes, then marries.
Carlos and his group spends most of the 1980s perpetrating terrorist attacks all over the Middle East and Europe. Then, one autumn day in 1990, the Berlin Wall comes down, and Carlos has to face the realization that he has wasted his entire life. “The war is over,” he says pathetically, “and we lost.” Like his life, the film sort of peters out, watching as he unhappily moves to Khartoum to run a terrorist training camp and hide out from the authorities who have desperately been searching for him for twenty years.
Carlos contains numerous moments of almost unparalleled excellence. The entire sequence depicting the OPEC raid, for instance, is riveting from start to finish. Like All the President’s Men, it tells a story everyone already knows in general terms while lingering on minor details most people know nothing about.
Another particularly effective sequence—one that defines what makes Carlos better than most docudramas—finds Carlos, early in his career, at a party in the dingy, bohemian apartment of his mistress. While most of the partiers gather in the main room, drinking and playing music, Carlos sits in the quieter bathroom with a young woman, engaged in one of those deeeeeeep, drug-induced conversations modern audiences might associate with college. Sitting in the dorm room, Barenaked Ladies playing softly, the pungent odor of marijuana lingering in the air, talking about how all skyscrapers represent the phallus…
Where was I? Assayas lingers on Carlos, having this innocent conversation with a girl about whether or not her boyfriend is cheating on her, and in an instant the place erupts in violence. Authorities rush in, claiming he has been fingered as Carlos. Carlos demands they bring the “witness” to confirm it. Then, Carlos shoots both cops and the witness, a former ally, to the horror of the innocent twenty-somethings he has befriended. This stunning sequence shows what separates Carlos from the wannabe activists surrounding: he takes violent, merciless action when he feels he or his cause has been threatened.
However, after a certain point, details of Carlos’s life become a bit redundant: He’s arrogant, he sleeps around, and his passion for his cause is sincere. These three aspects of his personality are reinforced so frequently, the man ends up remaining as much of a cipher at the end of the film as he does at the beginning. Other facets of who he is remain elusive—for instance, his eventual capture was precipitated by the decision to get liposuction. With the exception of his desire for sex, nothing portrayed in the preceding five hours gives the impression that this is the sort of man vain enough to go in for plastic surgery.
The inability to paint a complete picture of Carlos the person diminishes what could have been the best docudrama ever made, and it’s why the film feels too long. If it showed more varied moments from Carlos’s life, the film could retain the exact same runtime without a complaint for me. I love long films that immerse me in a character, story, and/or world that fascinates me. Carlos has the ingredients for that, but the decision to reemphasize the same three qualities causes the film to sometimes lapse into tedious scenes.
Although I haven’t seen the significantly shorter theatrical cut, I do wonder if maybe it turned out better, on the whole. After all, there’s plenty from this film that could be cut to make the film more focused and less redundant.
Whatever the case, Carlos is a very good docudrama that doesn’t quite reach the level of greatness it could have. It’s worth seeing, despite its flaws, for the numerous great sequences and the excellent performance by Édgar Ramírez.