Olivier Assayas’ near-epic Carlos boasts the tagline, “The man who hijacked the world.” That man was the Venezuelan Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, who in an act of revolutionary bravado rechristened himself “Carlos” — a single name meant to echo and intimidate. In the early 1970s, Carlos become virtually a household name, the Cher or Madonna of international terrorism. As Carlos, Edgar Ramirez here commands the screen, but the film equally evokes a world of insurrectionist zeal, a particular time in history when a man like Carlos could imagine himself not just a revolutionary, but a worldwide celebrity.
The film, which opened this month in theaters and is also available on demand, begins with a bang in Paris, 1973. A car-bomb assassination kills Mohammed Boudia, suspected leader of the Black September cell responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Then we see Carlos in Beirut, meeting with Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour), head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Haddad makes Carlos — at 24, looking like a thick-sideburned Jim Jones – second-in-command of PFLP’s European operations. Haddad becomes the closest thing Carlos will have to a boss or mentor.
From that opening, Carlos turns into a rush of international plotting, revolutionary speechifying, and guerrilla war-making. Geography blurs, from sun-bleached Yemen to sun-bleached Morocco. Insurrectionist groups flower and pass. Relishing his position at the center of it all is Carlos. Soon adopting a Che Guevara look, he is all sex and violence; his potency is purely destructive. In an early scene he admires himself wet and naked in the mirror as the television news recounts his latest bombing. Later, while using a grenade to seduce a fellow revolutionary, Carlos says, “Weapons are an extension of my body.” He pursues satisfaction for both his weapons and his body.
This self-interested pursuit doesn’t sit well with his superiors — they want him to take orders — and often offends his fellow militants. After botching his assignment to kidnap members of OPEC, Carlos has the choice between accepting a pay-off and escaping alive, or dying in support of his supposed cause. Confronted by his comrades, he takes the money, saying, “I’m a soldier, not a martyr.” Of course, when he leaves the hijacked airplane, he’s sure to let the cameras capture him in a black leather jacket and a beret, long hair and Che scruff-beard, his eyes hidden behind black sunglasses and cigar smoke billowing hyper-coolly from his mouth. He’s an actor, not a soldier, the terrorist as rock star.
“You have done a great deal for your own cause,” Haddad tells him, “You are famous now… celebrities don’t take to following orders.” So Carlos sets out on his own, becoming a mercenary playboy, yet lacking the self-awareness to recognize himself as such. “Behind every bullet we fire, there will be an idea,” he declares early in the film. Yet it becomes clear that for him the bullet is the idea: it is power, its own end. This ideology proves fluid enough to accommodate many masters, including Saddam Hussein and the U.S.S.R. This leaves the film at risk of becoming a bewildering who’s who of shady political actors from around the globe, less a critique than a series of name-checks.
As he seeks an identity, Carlos believes himself destined to die early and violently. But fate is not so kind to him. Instead he ages and grays; more and more countries want to arrest him, and fewer want the hassle of protecting him. He ends up paunchy and irrelevant in Khartoum, where he considers liposuction and his new, young bride chides his vanity. “Our death sentence has been signed,” he intones to one remaining ally, still wishing for a romantic ending. Instead he undergoes testicular surgery in hope of curing his low sperm count.
“The war is over, and we lost,” a comrade tells him. But Carlos maintains faith in his own mythology. Only when he realizes that his name has lost its effect does he see also that he has never been fighting for anyone else, only himself.