Sunday, October 02, 2011

Carlos

(Movie Review)

This is another case of a movie that is hard to categorize. According to Wikipedia (W) it was released both as a 5 and a half hour film and as a mini-series on French television. Maybe it belongs under the category of TV miniseries instead of a proper movie, but I’m deciding to include it on this movie review project anyway.

I’ve been looking forward to seeing this movie for a while. Back when I was at college, I remember reading about the life of Carlos the Jackal on-line and thinking to myself, “Man, what an interesting story! This would make a great movie.”
(In fact, that same website that got me so interested back in the 1990s is still online. For some fascinating reading, check out their multi-part history of the life of Carlos the Jackal [LINK HERE]).
A few years ago, when I was wasting time creating a blogging list of the top 10 biopics I would like to see, Carlos the Jackal was one of the top of the list.

So, naturally, when I found out about this new French production, I was very curious to see it. I managed to track down a copy here in Cambodia, and watched it the other week.

This is a movie that’s purely for the history nerds. If you’re not interested in history or politics, it will probably be a very long 5 and a half hours for you. Sure there are some explosions and gunfights, but there are also a lot of politics as you have to keep track of which group is being sponsored by which country and for what reasons.

However if you are a bit of a history nerd, like me, you’ll find this movie absolutely fascinating. Although the focus of the movie is only on one man, through the story of Carlos’s life we get a glimpse into several of the terrorist groups of the 1970s and how they were inter-related with each other.

It is a long movie. At 5.5 hours, I wouldn’t recommend watching it all in one sitting. However broken up over 3 days I found it to be a fantastic viewing experience. The length of the movie allows the filmmakers to fully flesh out the events without rushing through anything.

The challenge of making a movie about the life of Carlos the Jackal is that the filmmakers have to make him charismatic and interesting enough to hold the attention of the audience, but they don’t want to glorify him.
This film does a remarkably good job of walking that line. They attempt to explain Carlos’s motivations, and show how he viewed what he was doing against the backdrop of the counter-revolutionary terror that was occurring across South America at the time (Carlos was Venezuelan).
At the same time, they don’t glorify him. They show him as having a callousness towards human life that borders on psychopathic. And in his relationships with women they portray him as a controlling and sometimes sadistic.

I would highly recommend this movie/miniseries to any other history nerds out there.

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Other Thoughts:

* It’s interesting that, aside from the Arabs, the two groups that Carlos ended up working with are the German Revolutionary Cells, and the Japanese Red Army. A lot of comparisons have been made between the West German and the Japanese student movements in the 1960s. In both countries, the 1968 generation was horrified at what their parents’ generation had done during the war, and believed that fascism was in danger of returning (partly because the old fascist guard really was being rehabilitated into high level government positions in the name of anti-communism). Both groups of students saw parallels between the Vietnam War and what their parents’ generation had done . Both countries had a violent student movement that spun off into terrorist factions. And in both countries once the Vietnam War finished, the leftover radical factions turned their attention to the Palestinian cause.

The Japanese Red Army (which for a time operated out of Paris blending in with all the Japanese tourists) is given a prominent part in the beginning of this movie when they work with Carlos to take over the French Embassy in The Hague in 1972.

As for the German radicals:
One of the great ironies of history is that during the late 1970s, the German radical movement began to confuse anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, and therefore came full circle to repeating the mistakes of their parents which had so horrified them to begin with.

To the filmmakers’ credit, they don’t dodge this issue but take the time to show the irony and explore it. When German terrorists hijack a French plane, they separate out the Jews from the rest of the passengers (W).
Another German radical Hans-Joachim Klein (W) is so appalled by this that he resigns from the movement. “Bose (W) separated out the Jews, just like at Auschwitz. I never thought a German of my generation could have done that,” Klein exclaims.

* This film is also fascinating because of the look it provides into international politics of the 1970s. It takes place during a time when the Communist bloc was loosely allied with Arab nationalism, and the film hints at backroom deals that went on between the governments of these countries. We get glimpses into the relationship that the KGB had with the East German Stasi, and the Hungarian government’s relationship with Moscow.
Arab leaders who have been in the news recently like Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein also play a prominent part in this story.

* In this post here, I questioned why there were no observation decks at airports back in the US. After having seen this movie, I no longer have that question. (In the film German terrorists attempt to shoot an airplane with an RPG missile fired from an observation deck.)

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Minor Quibbles:
* As this is a French film, and as it takes place all over the globe and has an international cast of characters, several different languages are spoken (French, German, Japanese, Spanish, Russian, et cetera). So if you don’t like reading subtitles, you’re out of luck.
However for me, the most difficult parts of the film to follow where the parts in English. The volume was so low I had trouble understanding what the characters were saying without the subtitles. (This may actually have been due to the poor quality of the DVD I obtained in Cambodia. I’d be interested to hear what other people thought.)
Actually a fair amount of the film was in English, because whenever characters from two different nationalities conversed, they used English as a common language. (If I were to rely solely on my stereotypes of the French people, I would have assumed they would have insisted on making French the international language in this film. But they graciously acknowledge English as the lingua franca.)

However several of the actors were using English as their second language and at times I think it showed. Their pronunciation was fine, but sometimes their delivery was a little off, and some of the lines sounded a bit cheesy. Either that or some of the acting was bad, I’m not sure.

* Some of the shoot out scenes were hard to follow. I’m not sure if this was intentional or not, but the camera moved a bit too fast for me, and sometimes I couldn’t tell who was shooting whom until the action had finished and the dead bodies were lying on the floor.

* If this had been a Hollywood production, I think the soundtrack would have been amped up a lot. As it is, there were a lot of key scenes that I thought could have used some more dramatic music. Maybe this is just a stylistic difference between American and French cinema, I don’t know, but I often found myself thinking, “This scene would be a lot better if they added some really dramatic sounding music to it.”
The few times when they did have music, it didn’t seem to fit the mood of the scene very well. There was even one instance where the music got caught off very abruptly, and I got the impression that whoever was in the editing room was just asleep at the wheel, or that the soundtrack was just thrown together at the last minute.

Link of the Day
International Terrorism: Image and Reality

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