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 version -- today in arthouses.
It's not hard to see why. Carlos tells a mostly thrilling, mostly true 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 Mohammed 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.
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