The last time the Western intelligentsia took a generally favorable view of terrorism was arguably 40 years ago, when the Algerians were beating back the French colonialists. French lawyer Jacques Vergès was in the thick of that fight, crafting a trial strategy dubbed "the rupture defense," in which he refused to acknowledge the validity of the government bringing charges. When the state called his clients murderers, he replied that they were "executing traitors." He was pitching beyond the jury box, to the international press; in one of his most famous cases, the outcry led to a full pardon for the young, pretty, wholly sympathetic Algerian bomber Djamila Bouhired. Then Vergès married her.
In Barbet Schroeder's exhaustive documentary Terror's Advocate, the Bouhired marriage becomes not a romantic story, but an example of Vergès' inability to separate his causes from his fleeting desires. After Algeria won its independence, Vergès began working for various Palestinian organizations, and then in 1970 he disappeared for eight years—even Bouhired claimed she didn't know where he'd gone—and returned with a pile of money that he said he'd gotten from the man who assassinated Congolese anti-colonialist Patrice Lumumba. Some spread rumors that he was hiding out with the last of the original Nazis, with whom he shared a dream to crush Israel. Some said he was a working as a French secret agent, in deep cover. Whatever the case, he re-entered the public sphere in less-than-heroic fashion, taking up the defenses of Klaus Barbie, Carlos The Jackal, and yet another sexy bomber, the Carlos associate Magdalena Kopp (with whom Vergès also allegedly had a fling).
Terror's Advocate is well-paced, and has the kind of professional sheen—right down to a dramatic soundtrack—that a veteran like Schroeder knows how to provide. There's scarcely a necessary interview that Schroeder doesn't get, and he cuts them together with file footage and newspaper headlines to make the whole movie play like an interactive magazine article. But what's missing is any kind of definitive judgment on what Vergès has done and why. Schroeder interviews the old attorney extensively, but he's understandably cagey. (At one point, a French official says that the final book on Vergès can only be written after he dies.) Nevertheless, it's illuminating to follow the trail of logic that leads to Vergès defending a Nazi against the French government on the grounds that what the French did in Algiers was worse. And if nothing else, Terror's Advocate offers a useful summary of the last half-century of global politics, and how changing public perceptions can make goats out of heroes.