"Carlos"—Seventies Nostalgia With Terrorism
September 09, 2013, 02:19 PM
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"Carlos"—Seventies Nostalgia With Terrorism

Carlos is a cold but propulsive 2010 French miniseries about the 1970s Communist terrorist known in the English-speaking world as Carlos the Jackal. He was born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the son of a wealthy Venezuelan Marxist-Leninist (Ilich had brothers named Vladimir and Lenin), who adopted the Palestinian cause as the vanguard of the international proletarian revolution. 

Carlos wasn't, personally, a prole. His own lifestyle was somewhere between sub-jetset and super-grad student. The terrorism of that era was focused on creating TV spectaculars by hostage-takings and striking at international travel connections, such as skyjackings, so the multilingual Carlos's familiarity with the capitals of Europe was an asset for the Palestinians and the weird array of terrorists (with the Japanese Red Army the weirdest of the weird) who flocked to their cause. 

Carlos's most famous undertaking was kidnapping all the OPEC oil ministers from their conference in Vienna in 1975 and flying them to Algeria, where he released them for a $20 million donation to the Palestinian cause, which he may (or may not) have pocketed. He was apparently expelled from his anti-Arafat Palestinian splinter group for not murdering Saudi Arabia' Sheik Yamani (although he killed other people who fell into his clutches). The TV shows says he was working for Saddam Hussein, but the terrorist (currently in a French prison) claims Libya's Colonel G/K/C was behind it.

After Vienna, Carlos worked more directly with the Soviet bloc. The miniseries contains a stunning scene in which Carlos is visiting Saddam Hussein in Iraq and KGB boss Yuri Andropov (later Soviet supremo from 1982-84) arrives to deliver a bloodthirsty speech promising that the Soviet Union will pay lavishly for the assassination of Anwar Sadat for betraying their aid. 

It's great TV, but I can't find much online about whether or not it really happened. (I must say, the scene rather resembles the opening one in The Naked Gun, in which Lt. Frank Drebin goes undercover at the secret terrorist planning meeting of Ayatollah Khomeini, Mikhail Gorbachev, Yasser Arafat, Muammar Gaddafi, Fidel Castro, and Idi Amin.) Whether or not that meeting took place, the energetic Andropov, who became KGB top man in 1967, was an influential figure backing 1970s terrorism.

Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez plays the terrorist. There's not all that much he can do with this humorless egotist. Some of the renown of his performance is like that of Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds: he speaks a wide variety of languages, all very quickly. 

About half the movie is in English (it's apparently the lingua franca of terrorists), but the main character speaks English in the mode of a classy Spaniard: i.e., with a distracting lisp. 

Unfortunately, the Netflix version doesn't come with Closed Captions during the English-language scenes, and the theatrical captions during the French, Spanish, Arabic, German, and Russian scenes are too tiny and too white-on-white to be easily readable by old tired eyes on a cheap TV. So, I can only say I more or less got the gist of the movie. 

Shot on an $18 million dollar budget, or about $3.5 million per hour, the miniseries seems pretty accurate about the mid-1970s (except for the soundtrack of songs by Wire, a British punk band that I thought sounded pretty cool in 1978, but was different from anything anybody was listening to in 1975). The show, for example, features an amazing array of 1970s automobiles. Having owned a 1970s automobile, I was impressed by how many the filmmakers could round up that still run. 

A few things that were different about the 1970s:

  • Cops weren't militarized back then. A large fraction of recent mass-market movies (e.g., We're the MillersThe Heat, Now You See Me, etc. etc.) feature scenes of cops donning body armor and mounting complex raids using commando-style hand-gestures, rappelling through skylights, etc. People love that kind of stuff these days.
  • Police amateurishness and befuddlement in the 1970s wasn't necessarily a good thing. Carlos wasn't exactly a terrorist mastermind, but he wasn't dealing with Seal Team Six, either. The terrorist modus operandi of the era was to carry a duffel bag full of weapons into a hotel or airport, shoot people, grab hostages, and demand a jetliner. This seemed like a foolproof plan back then (although Carlos managed to foul it up sometimes). What are the cops gonna do?
  • Nobody had tattoos.