For Carlos the Jackal, the political was the personal -- and both were complex
It would require a nimble memory, a PhD in international relations and a lengthy LexisNexis database search to fully grasp the historical intrigues of “Carlos,” the five-hour epic (opening in Los Angeles today) about the international terrorist nicknamed “The Jackal.”
But two of the main geopolitical struggles that animate “Carlos” will be familiar to modern viewers: the ongoing question of how to resolve the territorial dispute between Israel and the Palestinian-Arab world, and the fight over access to global oil supplies.
The action-drama-biopic by French director Olivier Assayas, starring Édgar Ramírez, opens in the early 1970s and ends in the mid-1990s. During that two-decade span, Carlos (born in Venezuela as Ilich Ramírez Sánchez) fights for the cause of Palestinian independence; kidnaps OPEC emissaries; crosses paths with Syrian agents, Hungarian government officials, Latin American student revolutionaries, Japanese Red Army fighters, East German secret police and Sudanese theocrats; and becomes embroiled in numerous Cold War proxy struggles occurring in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
Although some specific details of Carlos’ wayward career had to be based on educated conjecture, the historical events the movie depicts are grounded in extensive journalistic research, Assayas said. The press notes for “Carlos,” which aired on the Sundance Channel last week and is playing this week at Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, includes a compendium of names and events that most American viewers will have forgotten, if they ever knew them at all.
Assayas said in a phone interview that certain key information about Carlos and his activities only became available after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when spy and police files from former Soviet Bloc countries began coming to light. For example, he said, some of the film’s dialogue was derived from actual tape recordings made by the Stasi, the dreaded secret police of the former East Germany.
“We did not realize in the ’70s to what extent the German terrorist groups, the Italian and so forth, were connected to the Middle East and were connected to the East German secret services,” Assayas said.
But the effects of Carlos’ support for the PFLP gradually rippled outward. In subsequent years he took part in a failed London bank bombing and a failed attack on an El Al airliner at Paris’ Orly Airport. In 1975 he led a mass kidnapping of OPEC officials attending a conference in Vienna. His main targets were the Saudi and Iranian oil ministers, whom Carlos and his comrades regarded as insufficiently pro-Palestinian and in cahoots with the West.
So what, in the end, did Carlos accomplish? And was idealism or megalomania his primary motivator?
“I think that Carlos was all about tactics more than strategies,” Ramírez said. “He was a guy who would work based on impulse, constantly. And for each specific period of his life he would be convinced of what he needed to resolve or what would serve to his ends in each specific moment.”
“I think also that Carlos somehow, as a character, he embodies the struggle between idealism and individualism, and how each political-ideological-artistic-social movement in general always tends to reach a point where the individual ambitions prevail, and people become even more reactionary [than] the ones they were opposing at the beginning. That’s on one side. And on the other side I think that at a certain moment of his life he became his own ideology. Because the struggle for power embodies the shift of winds, constantly. So today you’re working for the red, being paid by the blue ones. And then tomorrow the blue ones and the red, they [make a] pact, and where are you left? So I think that this guy, this character, somehow also embodies the struggle between utopia and survival, between the will to change the world and also a narcissistic obsession for a place in history, for recognition.”
At least for some viewers, the geopolitical nuances of “Carlos” won’t register half as much as the film’s explosively tense action sequences or the scary charisma of its photogenic star.
Meanwhile, the real Ilich Ramírez Sánchez resides in a prison, where he likely will live out his remaining years, and the world is fixated on a new generation of guerrilla fighters, ideological mercenaries and apostles of armed revolt in places like Afghanistan.
“Terrorism is about geopolitics,” Assayas said. “The logic of terrorism doesn’t change, only the geopolitics.”
-- Reed Johnson
Photo: Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the real "Carlos the Jackal." Credit: Associated Press