“Weapons are an extension of my body,” muses superstar terrorist Illich “Carlos” Ramirez Sanchez (Edgar Ramirez), signifying both the physical and mechanical prowess inherent to his violent ideological platform. The suave human crest of Olivier Assayas’s five-and-half-hour epic Carlos puts these ideas into practice through countless acts of bravura aggression, horrific moments that dominated the media and social spotlight throughout the 1970s. But the statement also echoes Carlos’s extreme arrogance and narcissism, and this clash between fervent belief systems and increasing self-indulgence plays an important role in charting the rise and fall of Carlos: the man, the myth, the persona. The film is split into three disparate historical chapters charting the high octane rhythm of an infamous career. Part I defines the contradiction between Carlos’s socialist beliefs and his highfalutin materialistic tendencies, while Part II segues into violent action, pacing, and detail, reconstructing the daring raid of the OPEC conference in 1975. The weakest and most arduous section, Part III wallows in Carlos’s exile after losing the trust of his extremist backers, mercifully ending with his arrest in 1994. Each section is stylistically intertwined and narratively audacious, yet taken as a whole they represent an Achilles heel for both the character and Assayas: a tireless and relentless pattern of explosive failure and pouty reflection.
Assayas spends the early section of Carlos positioning the energetic Venezuelan ideologue into a specific historical and political context, jettisoning him through the Cold War European landscape like a Marxist James Bond searching for a worthy mission. Carlos rises up the ranks of the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine (PLFP), gets his hands wet with a failed assassination attempt on a Jewish businessman, and obtains a cell of his own to carry out more expansive missions. The glossy, widescreen imagery finely tunes Carlos’s mental picture of himself as an important specimen, the camera holding on to the contours of his body and face. When a naked Carlos stares at himself in the mirror, admiring his physique, we get a blunt look at the massive ego behind the wheel. Yet Assayas never dilutes or simplifies the impact Carlos’s stringent personality has on both the people and locations around him. This potent push-pull creates a merry-go-round of ambitious plans that quickly degenerate into volatile failed escapades. The elaborately prepared but ultimately botched effort by United Red Army soldiers to capture a government official, or the ridiculously brazen rocket attacks at Orly Airport are prime examples of this pattern: Carlos’s hopeful charisma always contrasts with the inconsequential end result of his actions. In this sense, Part I swims through a draining current of passion and panic, delusion and disillusionment that finally backs Carlos into a corner, culminating in a brutal shootout that leaves three French police officers dead.
If intent and result are elemental attributes of Carlos as a modern display of globalization gone awry, then Part II is the film’s piece-de-resistance. The OPEC raid is rendered through a booming soundtrack of post-punk music, unfolding in almost real-time with a keen attention to bullet blasts and shredded textures. Assayas undermines the sequence’s intensity with cliched characterizations (one female terrorist kills indiscriminately), but the enthralling action takes on an identity all its own, jumping from visceral kinetics to long moments of waiting, depending on the realistic shifts in circumstance. The OPEC raid is another example of Assayas’s clever mixture of tone and pacing, an aesthetic approach that illuminates the sometimes dour moments in between historical events. As the mission progresses and initial concerns turn into full-blown worries of failure, Carlos and his team begin to implode under the pressure of perception. Media outlets, government officials, and terrorist cells all have a hand in guiding Carlos, his team, and their hostages from one destination to the next, creating a frustrating game of hopscotch that inevitably wears down everyone involved. “We’re all pawns in the game of history,” Carlos states, attempting to enliven the disintegrating morale of his diverse brethren. But by this point, these words hold less intrinsic value for his followers. This represents a shift in the relationship between Carlos and the fragmented world around him. The compromising detente Carlos makes with his OPEC pursuers opens up his persona for ridicule by even his most devoted followers and employers, and begins Part III under a cloud of uncertainty.
Fractured identity and purpose encapsulate the final act of Carlos, which ultimately makes it the most fatigued of the three sections. By this point, Carlos’s meandering prose grow tired, his once hard-nosed charm now a soft, whimpering pattern of indulgent entitlement. Without the crutch of narrative action to hold the story up, Assayas fails to find a groove, as laborious tirades and repetitive changes in locale dominate the proceedings. When an ex-terrorist bedfellow tells Carlos “Without newspapers, you wouldn’t exist,” we realize he’s exactly right. By this point, Carlos becomes a dormant historical personage and Assayas can’t rectify the interpretations of this decline with any sort of cinematic tenacity. In the end, Carlos is a white whale to his family, the world, and the viewer, a proxy for once horrific terror that holds little water outside of print. Decades go by, and Carlos stays rooted in this physical and mental marsh, so by the time he’s actually captured for the murders two decades previous, his confinement is a welcome respite. All the grandstanding, the ambitious promises of change, have come and gone, and Carlos lingers for far too long on the interior decadence of a man bloated by his own self-importance.
The most frustrating thing about Carlos is that despite its lengthy running time and extremely bold resolve, the film never really breaks through the surface of the man at its center. Maybe it’s the extreme repetition of outward expression, or the focus on thematic quandaries instead of small character moments, but Carlos the energetic cipher never graduates into a dimensional character. Assayas, known for his ability to jump between genres without compromising his humanism, always seems at the mercy of his lead actor, trying to catch up with Ramirez as he propels from one set piece to the next. This fatal flaw keeps the massive Carlos from reaching the same invigorating highs as Steven Soderbergh’s masterful revolutionary biopic Che. So for all its coverage of the disturbing overlap between modern pop culture and fundamentalist terrorism, Carlos replaces deepening components of character and context with a broadside approach to historiography. Assayas’s film could have been a sniper rifle of precision filmmaking, a meticulous look at the contradictions between extremist ideology, social codes, and Western capitalism. Instead, it’s a double-barrel shotgun blast littering an epic canvas with small holes.