Daniel Leconte, Dan Franck, and Olivier Assayas, 2010
#6, 2010 Skandies

"No one is interested in us anymore — no one! You know what the CIA is saying about you? That you are a... historical curiosity!" So insists the disillusioned last hanger-on of the Cold War terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal, near the end of the epic film that bears his nom de guerre. When I say "epic," I don't mean in the modern "I got off work half an hour early! Epic!" sense — this movie is five and a half hours long, follows Carlos from Beirut to London to Paris to Aden to Vienna to Algiers to Berlin to Baghdad to Budapest to Damascus to Tripoli to Khartoum, and includes scenes in English, French, Spanish, Arabic, and German, with a bit of Hungarian, Russian, Italian, Dutch, and Japanese thrown in for good measure. While it doesn't have quite the thematic density that marked Assayas's previous effort, Summer Hours — high on my list of favorite movies of the '00s — its ideas are sustained for the equivalent of a long novel, so it amounts to roughly the same amount of food for thought... and while I tend to think of "novelistic" as a compliment, there's a lot for the cinéastes who use it as a pejorative to like as well: arresting compositions, a number of long electric sequences. All of this in the service of telling the story of someone who is indeed not much more than, as noted, a historical curiosity.

In a sense this seems like a silly thing to say. Carlos was a terrorist, and what could be more relevant to the 21st century than terrorism? But there have been so many rounds of tactical escalation between terrorist and counterterrorist forces since Carlos's heyday that what we see in this movie doesn't even look like the same phenomenon. My awareness of the world in the mid-'70s didn't extend much beyond playpens and sandboxes, so I was astonished to see how the terrorism of that period tended to unfold. Take the incident in which a few members of the Japanese Red Army stormed the French embassy in the Netherlands, took a few hostages, and demanded the release of one of their imprisoned comrades, a bus to the airport, a plane to South Yemen, and one - mill-i-on - dollars... and got all those things! (Or close to it: the $1 million was negotiated down to $250,000 and then up to $300,000.) I've been hearing politicians thunder that "we don't negotiate with terrorists" for so long that I had assumed that it was something they'd been saying from time immemorial, but no — apparently, just a few years before I started paying attention, negotiating with terrorists was routine. It's easy to see why: it takes a cold heart to allow innocents to be executed over a point of principle. But it's also easy to see why the cold hearts eventually won and policies toward terrorists shifted. A society that allows terrorism to work will likely see a lot more of it. Make it clear that no concessions will be given to those who take hostages or set off bombs, and you'll wind up with a higher body count... but you'll also narrow the pool of potential terrorists down to those who view killing as an end rather than a means and who are willing to die themselves in order to take others with them. In recent years we've learned that that pool is still large enough to send the world careening down a very dismal course. But it's small enough to exclude the most notorious terrorist of the 1970s.

The central incident of Carlos is the 1975 OPEC raid. The film follows the known history down to a fine level of detail, and it goes like this: Iraqi vice president Saddam Hussein — a Cheneyan figure at this time, effectively running the country though a titular deputy — wants to launch assaults on the Kurds and, eventually, Iran. This will take money, which he plans to raise by having OPEC institute a 30% increase in the price of oil. But the American client states of Saudi Arabia and Iran will never go along with that. Therefore, he contacts Wadie Haddad, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and relays the following instructions. Haddad will assemble a commando team, to be led by Carlos, whose exploits have impressed Saddam. This team will break into the OPEC meeting in Vienna and take the assembled delegations hostage, ostensibly to raise awareness of the plight of the Palestinians, but with the true objective of executing the Saudi and Iranian oil ministers. The Libyan embassy — for Muammar Qadhafi is also on board with the plan — will broker a deal in which the terrorists are supplied a plane which will take them to each OPEC country in turn, at which point that country's minister will be released in exchange for reading a (phony) statement of solidarity with the Palestinian cause. But the plane will never reach Riyadh or Tehran; the final stop will be Baghdad, where Saddam can have the terrorists secretly ferried to safety in Aden while maintaining plausible deniability about how the Saudi and Iranian ministers ended up dead. And yet the lesson about what happens to those who defy Saddam will be clear.

But tiny contingencies have a way of shaping big events, and such was the case in the 1975 OPEC raid. When Carlos bursts into the meeting room, assault rifle blazing, one man dares to attack him, and Carlos shoots him dead. This man turns out to have been a member of the Libyan delegation. So when the Carlos, per instructions, requests that the Libyan embassy mediate, a furious Qadhafi refuses. Carlos's team receives a lifeline when the Algerians step in, but their agenda is very different: they want to get in the Saudis' good graces. There are many riveting twists and turns, some of them darkly hilarious, but ultimately Carlos finds himself on a runway in Algiers with a choice to make. Foreign minister Abdelaziz Bouteflika — who as I type this is president of Algeria, one of the few North African leaders to have survived in office through the protest movement of 2011 — has offered him a way to extricate himself from this mess with a kind of victory: free the hostages, and he'll get $20 million, a limo ride to a mountain villa where he and his group will be granted political asylum, and safe passage back to South Yemen a couple of weeks later when things have cooled down. He can take that deal... or he can follow through with his mission, kill the two targeted ministers, and then die himself when Algerian forces storm the plane. So here we have it — the inflection point in the history of modern terrorism. Old school extortion vs. new school suicide runs. Carlos confers with two of his comrades, his second-in-command Khalid and a tiny female berserker who goes by the codename Nada, and the two of them argue strenuously for the new school. They don't care about money — "We're revolutionaries, not bandits!" Nada seethes. They care about killing Yamani and Amouzegar, and if they have to die themselves to accomplish that, well, giving their lives for the cause was precisely what they signed up for. They're true believers. Carlos is not. For all his talk about martyrdom, it is not what he's after. Had he been born a generation later, he would have had to find a different line of work.

So what does Carlos want? He says he has dedicated his life to serving as a champion of the oppressed peoples of the world in their struggle against imperialism. It's a noble enough goal: a wealthy elite is indeed engaged in an ongoing project to ransack the planet, impoverishing billions so that a few can live in luxury, and it does need to stop. Less noble, and marking Carlos as a figure of another era, is that his remedy is violent action to hasten "the revolution," i.e., the establishment of Soviet-affiliated "people's republics" around the globe. You won't find too many Occupy rallies arguing that the world needs more police states headed by maniacs in fatigues; why was this opinion sufficiently widespread a couple of generations ago that John Lennon felt compelled to write a song deriding it? I reckon that there are a number of reasons:

One is a political version of a phenomenon I've talked about in some of my posts about sports, such as my writeup of The Book of Basketball. I grew up in Southern California and the cretins in my classes rooted for the Lakers, so I became a Celtics fan. The fact that the two teams were basically interchangeable collections of asshole jocks, and that the asshole Laker fans I went to school with were basically interchangeable with the asshole Celtic fans I would have gone to school with had I lived in New England, made no difference. The Laker fans were the ones I was actually surrounded by, so the principles that "familiarity breeds contempt" and "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" had me cheering for Boston. Those same principles suggest that if you're (rightly) disgusted to find yourself in a society that funnels the wealth created by actual workers to a bunch of kleptocratic banksters, you might well decide to support the other team — remaining willfully blind to the fact that a bunch of kleptocratic thugs are running things over on that side too. And that's how West German "revolutionaries" can decry oppression and yet simultaneously act as informants for the fuckin' Stasi.

Of course, there's only so far you can take this kind of cognitive dissonance; you won't find too many leftist radicals today who are sufficiently embittered by Western capitalism to support its current archrival, hierocratic Islam. But the players were different during the Cold War. As I discussed in my article on Koba the Dread, while the communist bloc may in reality have been an authoritarian nightmare, it at least put forth the appealing image of being a workers' paradise, so the First World's discontents could feel justified in aligning themselves with the Second World in sense if not in reference. And when developing countries had "socialist" revolutions, their people did tend to see real benefits: modern medical care, and not just for those who could afford it; improved access to education; a dramatic increase in the rights and social standing of women. You can make a case that if you're going to be bought off to support a class of malevolent overlords, this is a better price to extract than access to cable TV and Coca-Cola.

But ultimately I think the reason Carlos became a revolutionary is pretty simple. Look at the Russian Revolution. Yes, the Bolsheviks may have turned out to be just as tyrannical as the aristocracy they replaced, but that doesn't mean that nothing had changed — the wealth and power were in the hands of a different set of kleptocratic thugs! It's easy to say "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" when you're the one being bossed around, but if you are the new boss, the change does indeed make a difference! And during the Cold War, if you toppled the government of an American client state in the name of "the revolution," you could get Soviet backing and thereby stay in power long enough to enjoy similar privileges... true, you'd be in a lower tier of world leaders, and wouldn't have a nuclear arsenal at your disposal, but as Muammar Qadhafi proved in amassing a two hundred billion dollar fortune, the life of a Third World despot can be pretty good for forty years or so. And even if you couldn't be a despot, you could establish yourself another tier further down. The leader of a Soviet-affiliated terror network such as Wadie Haddad, for instance, could rake in tens of millions of dollars, command a modicum of respect, and wield absolute power even if it was just over a little fiefdom in Aden. This is what Carlos wanted, and, for a time, got. He wanted the suitcases of money that bought him expensive booze and blowjobs from an international menagerie of prostitutes. He wanted followers who obeyed his every order. (One of the key moments of pitch-black comedy in the film comes when Carlos sententiously lectures the oil ambassador of authoritarian Saudi Arabia that "unlike you, I am a democrat, so I will discuss your fate with my comrades" — only to find himself outvoted when he does so. He immediately overrides their input: "I'm making my decision, and that's final!") And he wanted to cut a dashing figure on the world stage playing the gentleman revolutionary: shaking hands with the officials of countries he had just subjected to acts of terror, taking aside men he had announced he was going to kill and having cordial conversations with them because "you and I are men of the same caliber." Living in a world where terrorists tend to be little more than human bombs, I found it fascinating to watch one who seemed to get less satisfaction from killing than from sorting through the hostages he'd taken and letting the ones who came from countries whose regimes he approved of off the hook. "Dr. Hernández Acosta? You can stand. I'm Venezuelan too, and I appreciate the positions of your government. We're on the same side." It's quaint. It also makes Carlos, as noted, a historical curiosity. But hey, I'm curious about history!

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