Olivier Assayas' recent film Carlos, the five and a half hour biopic about the notorious "Carlos the Jackal", has garnered a significant amount of critical acclaim ever since it played at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Beautifully shot, cleverly edited, and extremely ambitious, this film could have been another Che, or, at the very least, a Bourne Identity with revolutionary politics. Unfortunately Carlos was an insulting and politically offensive piece of ahistorical trash that, after the first promising hour and a half, degenerated into retrograde confusion. Perhaps this confusion was promised in the first third of the film, when the titular protagonist proclaims, in defense of his Marxist-Leninist principles, "we are not nihilists" - a statement the audience, by the end of the film, should understand as ironic.
Indeed, Assayas' film is tainted by that postmodern irony and cynicism that cannot help but suspect revolutionary principles and must sacrifice honesty and realism in order to insult and denigrate any person or persons who were foolish enough to act, rightly or wrongly, according to these principles. The film became confused and nihilistic because we are supposed to believe that the politics of the film's subject are essentially confused and meaningless. Thus Carlos was a rockstar biopic masquerading as a film about a revolutionary terrorist, and the character Carlos was like a Jim Morrison: substitute guns for microphones, and anti-imperialist comments for pop songs - once the surface trappings are changed, the film might as well have been any other cautionary moral tale about celebrity stardom.
I do not believe that films about revolutionaries should always be hagiographical, that committed and infamous militants should always be depicted as inhuman saints. That is not my problem with Carlos. As one of my friends wrote about Carlos (real name: Illich Ramirez Sanchez), before seeing the film, "he might have been an asshole but he was our [meaning the left's] asshole." No one is perfect, and every great revolutionary is as flawed as everyone else. I am certain that Carlos was no different from other masculinist radicals of the time, the sort of glory-seeking heroes much criticized by radical feminism. And yet the film did not even present Carlos as "our asshole" - rather, it presented him as just a two-dimensional asshole whose supposed revolutionary principles were just about being a jerk.
One of the most apparent problems with Carlos, and what should cast most of the film into suspicion, is its basic historical inaccuracy. For example, Assayas claims that the infamous OPEC raid was funded by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. And yet the historical record on this point is clear: Carlos' team received funding from Libya not Iraq, and an Iraqi security agent (not a Libyan security agent as the film falsely shows) was killed during the raid. Even wikipedia, not the most reliable source for political information, accepts this fact as irrefutable. Moreover, evidence submitted at trials for other OPEC raiders always pointed to Libya. This might seem like a minor quibble, but this act of historical dishonesty is important for the film's ultimate anti-anti-imperialist agenda.
The problem with Carlos is not whether or not Carlos was a horrible human being. Rather, the problem is that the film's logic is constructed in such a way that he could be nothing but a confused nihilist, a rank mercenary who only pays lip-service to radical politics, because the political commitments themselves are meaningless. Carlos is nothing more than a cipher of an incoherent politics that are a priori flawed (and never given any real coherence by the film-maker): his flaws are the fault of a dishonest politics. The revisionist account of the OPEC raid serves this purpose. In fact, the beginning of the OPEC raid is where the film's degeneration begins.
When Carlos is first given the OPEC assignment by PFLP-EO leader Wadie Haddad, he is informed in a closed-door meeting that the raid is not really aimed at Palestinian liberation but is secretly an Iraqi operation. The Iraqis want the Saudi and Iranian oil ministers assassinated (the reasons given are rather nebulous, and must be nebulous since this is a massive historical error), and the PFLP-EO has decided to hire itself out as a mercenary group for Iraq. Thus we are told that the specific political struggle Carlos has committed himself to is really meaningless. The revolutionary leadership of the PFLP is not concerned, apparently, with the liberation of Palestine - they just pretend to care in order to trick people into becoming their operatives and then sell their services to the highest bidder.
One must wonder why the PFLP, Carlos, and the other "mercenary" revolutionaries are committed to their militant lives in the first place. The film cannot spirit away their anti-imperialism completely - that would be obviously historically inaccurate in light of the declarations, speeches, and interviews of Carlos and the PFLP. So instead the film undermines the anti-imperialism by making it seem like a lie, nothing more than a cover for mercenary opportunism. And yet the film's position makes no logical sense within the film itself: why are these people talking about anti-imperialism when there doesn't even seem to be an anti-imperialism in the movie? Why would a glory-seeking macho-man like Carlos be drawn more to the anti-imperialist struggle than, say, a mercenary team backed by the CIA? At the end of the film, when the Berlin wall has fallen and Carlos has become a political dinosaur, why would he refuse to go to Venezuela with his wife, thus leaving the life of revolutionary terrorism, if he lacked any real political commitment?
The audience, however, need not worry about these questions. Assayas has gone to great length to obfuscate these contradictions by only vaguely referencing the underlying political logic. We are not given a concrete reason for Carlos' Marxist-Leninism, and only vague explanations for why he would choose revolutionary terrorism. At that point in history Carlos' ideas of political practice, the semi-Guevarist terrorism ideology, was somewhat common and there was a reason, rightly or wrongly, for people to believe that it made sense. We know from experience that it was a mistake - that it lacked any connection with mass movements and so was doomed to failure in prisons like Stammheim - but the film does not explain why someone like Carlos would honestly believe in this ideology aside from attributing it to his ego. And if his political commitments were nothing more than an ego trip, then we must ask ourselves why he chose radical communism over any other ego-boosting mercenary life. Again, Assayas' Carlos is a rockstar pretending to be a revolutionary.
The film's logic tells us that if Carlos is a sexist pig whose politics are nothing more than mercenary opportunism, then we should not blame only Carlos. The fault lies with his dishonest politics, politics we were taught to distrust earlier in the film - hours before Carlos is revealed as a super asshole - in the PFLP-EO meeting preceding the OPEC raid. From there we must accept the logic of Carlos' personal degeneration.
In fact, this cynicism allows Carlos' problematic behaviour to exist beyond criticism. If there is no political foundation with which to hold him to account, no real basis of incongruency between his politics and his behaviour, then he cannot be critiqued. He can tell people they "lack discipline," while clearly lacking discipline himself, but we already understand that his politics are nothing more than disguised mercenary-ism. And when Wadie Haddad criticizes Carlos for putting himself above the organization, we can't take the leader of the PFLP-EO seriously because we were already told that this organization was as opportunistic and politically suspect (for all radical politics MUST be suspect) an hour earlier.
This political cynicism, this post-modern irony that Assayas cultivates at every point in the film (at one point we have Carlos talking about guns and playing with grenades while he seduces a woman), is what critics love. Todd McCarthy's review, an excerpt of which was featured in the Carlos trailer, demonstrates that critics are suspicious of films that celebrate radical politics - that they do not want political militants depicted without cynicism and irony:
"Carlos" is everything "Che" wanted to be and much, much more - a dynamic, convincing and revelatory account of a notorious revolutionary terrorist's career that rivets the attention during every one of its 321 minutes.The contrast with Che is important. Where Che, regardless of any of its flaws, tried to accurately represent its subject's politics, Carlos spat on the politics of its protagonist and those associated with the protagonist. To make a film that honestly depicts a revolutionary's political commitments, and to demonstrate this revolutionary was (regardless of any flaws) honestly led by these commitments, is something most bourgeois critics cannot stand. They want to be told that these people were really mercenaries, that there is no reason to believe in their politics in this enlightened post-Cold War era. McCarthy's entire review speaks to this desire for a cynical treatment of revolutionary figures - he even goes so far as to accept the revisionist historical account of the OPEC raids, proving that he really knows nothing about the basic facts of that period.
So if anything, Carlos adequately represents the political film mainstream critics desire. Radical politics must be erased, the revolutionary's commitments must be treated with utter cynicism. The mainstream does not want to believe that there might have been ethical and important reasons behind the 1970s period of international terrorism, and that men and women like Carlos, regardless of their flaws, were acting out of a sense of ethical conviction.
Again, I have no problem with the revolutionary (especially the revolutionary male) being critiqued and shown as problematic - I think this is important. There was another film that showed at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, for example, that did examine the flaws of committed revolutionaries and yet, unlike Carlos, was not anti-anti-imperialist. Hors-la-loi, by Rachid Bouchareb, was an attempt to examine the FLN's terrorist activities within France in support of the Algerian Revolution. And though Bouchareb's film was very critical of the people running the FLN within France - depicting all of their moral lapses and failures - it did not at one point claim these failures were due to some essential problem of their political commitments. Rather, the viewer was shown why they believed what they believed (colonialism, the Setif Massacre), and made to sympathize with their commitments even if one could not sympathize with some of their actions. And yet Carlos was celebrated at the Cannes, and Hors-la-loi was attacked by a conservative movement that tried to have it removed from the festival. Both dealt with flawed revolutionary figures, but the former was critically adored whereas the latter was targetted with censorship.
Assayas missed an opportunity to make the sort of film the contemporary left needs. A film that could show flawed militants like Carlos who were led, regardless of their flaws, by honest principles. A film that could be critical of the Carloses of the world and yet, by interrogating their politics, maybe teach us that there was a reason why people believed in these commitments and these types of actions. A film that could make the end of the Cold War, and the isolation Third-Worldists felt, something more than a music video: there was an internationalism in the 1970s that was lost, a feeling of global solidarity amongst the oppressed that was not just vocalized by hero-men like Carlos (Leila Khaled, for example, springs to mind). A film that could show him, as my friend said, as "our asshole." Instead, because Assayas made Carlos a cipher of his political commitments, and that these commitments were flawed from the get-go, we are left, at the end of the movie, with an impotent egomaniac who could only be impotent because his politics were impotent. (This is another cheap irony, and a sexist one at that: Carlos literally losing his "manhood" as a symbol of the "impotence" of his political beliefs.) In the end, we are told that there is no reason to believe in radical politics because these politics are meaningless: Carlos was the nihilist he claimed he was not.