(Note: The following review is of the full, five-and-a-half hour cut of Carlos, which will be broadcast on Sundance Channel and exhibited in a multi-part “roadshow” edition in theaters. A shorter, 165-minute theatrical cut will be released concurrently and on IFC’s On Demand service.)
If there’s a common thread to many Olivier Assayas films, beyond their general excellence, it’s their forward-thinking cosmopolitanism, born of an interest in how different cultures coalesce and clash in a world of increasingly porous borders. Whether following a Hong Kong actress baffled by the French film industry (Irma Vep) or staging an international corporate thriller with vipers at every port (Demonlover), Assayas is like a man without a country—or at least a director whose interests are far from parochial. For that reason, there’s no more ideal filmmaker to bring the story of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (a.k.a. “Carlos,” a.k.a. “The Jackal”), a Venezuelan terrorist/mercenary whose violence in the 1970s and ’80s on behalf of the Palestinian cause (among other pursuits) made him a global outlaw. Produced for French television, though dazzlingly cinematic, Assayas’ three-part epic Carlos follows Sánchez for about 30 years as he travels the globe, a nomadic revolutionary who’s unmoored from any one person or place—and eventually, from his principles.
Opening in 1973, Carlos begins with the 23-year-old Sánchez eagerly aligning himself with the international revolutionary cause in general and the Popular Front For The Liberation Of Palestine (PFLP) in particular. He enters into a complex relationship with militant leader Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour), who appreciates his protégé’s courage and ruthlessness, but grows wary of Sánchez’s narcissism and refusal to follow orders. Nevertheless, he spearheads a number of deadly missions in London, and offers support to brazen terror attacks like the Japanese Red Army’s raid of a French embassy in The Hague and a failed attempt to blow up an El Al airliner with rocket launchers. Vainly fashioning himself as a revolutionary icon in the Ché Guevara mold, Sánchez grabs worldwide headlines for his exploits, but the extra attention feeds his indulgences for women and drink, and calls his true motives in question.
Played with appropriate magnetism by Édgar Ramírez, Sanchez is smart, brave, charismatic, persuasive, seductive, vain, sexist, hypocritical, mercenary, and monstrous, at times galvanizing in his mission to dismantle capitalist and Zionist power and at other times a pathetic, corrupt, recklessly violent thug who’s all too willing to sell out. All of those qualities come together for the film’s bravura hour-long centerpiece, a December 1975 raid of an OPEC conference in Vienna that represents a dramatic tipping point for Sánchez and the trajectory of the movie itself. In a style reminiscent of David Fincher’s Zodiac, Assayas follows the chronology in a straight line, with names, dates, and places meticulously documented. The last third of Sánchez’s life doesn’t quite cooperate; as he drifts into sloth and irrelevance, the movie drifts along with him. But Carlos is mostly tense and thrilling, revealing the poisonous side of global citizenship.