2010, 335 Min., French/German Co-Production, Budget: 18 Mil. (estimated)
Carlos is a towering accomplishment. A modern epic. A movie/miniseries shot on three continents, in over six world cities that sports an impressive number of languages (I lost count). It is a film that I believed handled its sweeping complexity with style, grace, technical sophistication and clarity... but as I got into the third, fourth and fifth hours, I became less convinced of the “clarity” part. Moving at the speed of light, it became apparent that this massive film wasn’t so much about what Carlos -- the infamous Venezuelan terrorist -- was doing, but more about the kind of man he was in general. This was a man who had developed a reputation that far outweighed the reality of who he was... See, the filmmakers did a clever thing. They admit much is unknown about Carlos’ life and therefore equal parts of the film are fictional. This allows them to take artistic license, a liberty they relish, but not in the traditional way you’d expect. Instead of dramatizing terrorist acts or coming up with new ones from scratch, the filmmakers use this freedom to comment on Carlos’ nature and the nature of his ideology, while simultaneously offering such a detailed account of his waking hours that we forget at times this isn’t a very high-grade documentary. And that’s just the first level of their cleverness. We are accustomed to seeing films about “great” people, and I imagine the average audience member would harbor a thought similar to: If you’re gonna dedicate 335 minutes to this guy, he better be great! But Carlos wasn’t “great” in any sense, and the filmmakers clearly knew this from the outset. This isn’t a glorification of a misunderstood political activist. It’s the uncovering of a fraud. It is taking a magnifying glass to a selfish, egomaniacal, generally inept hot air balloon with a rotating facial hair configuration. The question then becomes why? Since what is actually happening on screen eventually becomes a blur, and since Carlos himself lacks any traditional conviction as a cinematic character, why make this film? My feeling is that to the filmmakers Carlos embodied the idea of terrorism as an abstract. It was a way to make the unfilmable into the filmable. All philosophical ideas need their anchor in reality, something that provides intrigue, entertainment value and perhaps just enough violence and nudity to make us forget that we’re actually watching an essay on the nature of terrorism. I was left with the question, how effective is terrorism, really? Is this just an enterprise engaged in by inferior men who find ways to aggrandize themselves via the security blanket of ideology? I was never quite convinced of Carlos’ true dedication to “the cause” -- in this instance, the cause is the radical leftist movement dedicated to the liberation of Palestine, blah, blah, blah. I “blah, blah, blah” not because the conflict in Palestine isn’t fascinating, tragic and to be taken seriously, but because Carlos opportunistically latched onto it -- a wayward man suckling from a conflict without any resolution in sight. That part’s key. I don’t believe Carlos ever wanted to “win,” because then he couldn’t fight, and then, finally, where would his power come from? If there wasn’t this character of a heroic “soldier” to play, Carlos would be revealed as what he always was...a nobody. Thanks to the nature of the world, however, men like Carlos will always have wars to fight and characters to play in those wars. Not to mention, there, too, will always be a handful of stooges along the way that are so destined to follow that they’ll just about follow anybody. Lucky Carlos. Ideology again masquerading as cause for these people to be their true selves: outcasts. But boy, do they seem passionate.
I suppose you could call the film successful if it left me with questions like the ones above, though I’m hesitant to admit that I have had more fun thinking about the film and discussing the film than I did actually watching the film. This was something that gradually dawned on me as I was deep into the third “part” of Carlos. It should be noted that the film was originally made for French television and was shown in three parts. At film festivals, it was shown in its entirety and then it was hacked up for various releases around the world. In America is enjoyed a short run via a roadshow distribution model, being shown in its complete form for a limited time. I was forced to watch Carlos episodically, a part a day for three days. Part 1 had the gloss of Scorsese. It felt like Goodfellas on uppers. I was bombarded by location/setting changes, character introductions, flashing names on the screen, 1970s rock ‘n’ roll and punk music. It was a blink-and-you-miss-it 90 minutes of filmmaking. I was impressed. I was engaged. I was a little confused. The first hour of Part 2 is objectively the finest and most elegant portion of the film. It deals with, in a detailed way, the overtaking of an OPEC conference in Vienna -- Carlos’ biggest claim to fame. This was gripping filmmaking. The pace from Part 1 changed dramatically and we could all stop for a moment to catch our breath -- except the hostages, of course. What’s most interesting about this section of the film is what a complete failure the entire enterprise turns out to be. Nothing goes according to plan -- a plan that is revealed to be more of a vague outline than a real “plan” anyway. Countries won’t let Carlos and his plane-full of hostages land, even threatening to turn off the runway lights in the pitch-black night. Carlos only realizes once on the DC-9 plane he so specifically requested that the aircraft is incapable of reaching the far distances he hoped to reach to make his daring escape. The pilot is forced to confront Carlos with the reality that they won’t be making it to Baghdad. Okay...new plan. Eventually, Carlos caves to Algiers who offers him twenty million dollars in exchange for the hostages, including the Saudi Arabian diplomat that he uncompromisingly claimed “had to pay the price.” Now everyone, including his comrades (and us as the audience) know Carlos can be bought. This wasn’t supposed to be about money, but of course, it is. This failed incident leads to a falling out between Carlos and Haddad, the man that up to this point was pulling the strings for Carlos and his freedom fighters. This split and Carlos’ subsequent attempts to go solo makes up the “stuff” of part 3. “Stuff” is an apt description. By this point in the story (hour 4), “Carlos” the film loses its narrative drive. Things are still happening. Some of them repeated from earlier in the movie. Carlos’ wife questions his leadership skills. He informs her that if she doesn’t like it, she can go kick rocks. We’re seeing a pattern emerge… This is skillful in its own right and kudos are owed to the filmmakers, for just when the movie becomes its most unruly, some of the deeper themes rise to the surface and begin to crystalize. We watch people only peripherally involved get murdered over breakfast. Who was that? We think to ourselves. We see Carlos’ waistband expand (Edgar Ramirez, the actor playing Carlos, successfully transforms from young Che-esque revolutionary to middle-aged, Middle Eastern businessman). Does his bloated belly represent the film itself? Carlos hides out in Sudan and gets chased by several Intelligence agencies. He gets a “new” wife, a younger woman who can fall for his charade of being an important man. Obviously, she doesn’t know him well. The previous women in Carlos’ life figured out his rouse and in a way “outgrew” the inherent childish notion of being a terrorist revolutionary -- meaning, they outgrew Carlos. The man himself never grows beyond that mindset, instead fixating on his “destiny” to become a martyr. By the end we’re pummeled, exhausted...underwhelmed. I had to digest Carlos slowly, like a fine cut of meat, but as though I may have filled up on too much bread before the main course ever arrived. I struggled through the film to follow its many plot threads. Perhaps my own failing, but I can assure you, I didn’t look away to check my phone. I paid as close attention as I could and I still found myself struggling to piece together this puzzle and to fully appreciate Mr. Ramirez as Carlos. I often times debated to myself about whether he was the best actor in the scene or the worst, and I still haven’t made up my mind. While he certainly had the “presence” and look of someone who very well could have been Carlos, his performance was somehow...muted. There was a certain even-tempo’d quality about him. He said things as statements, not deep-held, passionate convictions. Charisma was scarce. More succinctly: he was kind of bland. Part of me thinks that can’t possibly be correct, as Mr. Ramirez has been championed for his portrayal. Was this yet another premeditated choice by the filmmakers? Never make Carlos too deserving of admiration, even in the performance? I’ve made several mentions of the film’s length. I’m not the kind of moviegoer to balk at a runtime. As Roger Ebert once said, “No good film is long enough and no bad film is short enough,” but Carlos was long... suspiciously long. Without question there was a superior 120 minute movie in there somewhere. So why the detailed approach? It brought me back to Martin Scorsese and his film “The Wolf of Wall Street” -- a 3 hour black comedy. I realized (with less self reflection) that Scorsese was using the film’s length to underscore a main theme in his film -- excess. Did we need the umpteenth snort, swallow or puff? No. But the onslaught of misbehavior communicates something subliminally that you could never put into words. I think it was the first time I saw a film use its length as a thematic device, and I believe Carlos is another film to use this technique. In America (and I use “us” because it is the clearest metaphor), we live in the perpetual dark cloud of September 11th, and on top of that, we exist day-to-day in the constant fear of getting gunned down at Starbucks (I hate to admit, I locate all the nearest exits when I’m visiting my local moviehouse). This “fear” has lived with us every day, all day, whether we realize it or not, and for the better part of 20 years. It works on our psyche, chipping away at our peace of mind. I think Carlos intended to work us into a similar submission. It crashes into us like waves, a fact of nature, unstoppable...just like terrorism. The abstract idea of “terrorism” will always exist (which is why it’s insane to wage war against it) and it’s working on us all the time, informing our views of the world. If Carlos is half as clever as I’m giving it credit for, we have a piece of artwork on our hands. And it’s true to say that art isn’t always as concerned with entertaining us as it is challenging us. The final thing I’ll say about “Carlos” the movie is that it made me truthfully reexamine my expectations of people like Carlos the movie character, and of movies in general. I kept waiting for Carlos the character to be “compelling,” to appear inspiring in his own misguided way. I thought I’d watch “Carlos” the same way I had watched “The Silence of the Lambs,” with a sick fascination, silently rooting for the murdering cannibal to escape at the end. But then I realized, I was romanticizing these characters, characters undeserving of being romanticized. Movies have conditioned me to sympathize with even the worst character (one of film’s most essential powers) -- fictional or otherwise and the very thing I found “disappointing” about Carlos was indeed what the film was trying to say. Why have we immortalized John Dillinger? Why do we idealize the Wild West way out of proportion? Carlos dares you to care and then do so for five and half hours. Have you realized how “unsexy” terrorism is yet? As an audience member you’ve been seduced by a story that on the surface seemed fascinating, but in actuality is the messy stuff of a below-average character study. This movie is Carlos, the character, the man. Pretty brilliant, actually.