Monday, 8 November 2010

Review: Carlos The Jackal DVD (Movie Version)

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Making terrorism sexy since 1973

As Mrs PCCP and I recently sat watching news reports of the thwarted terror business at East Midlands airport, we got into a nice middle-class chat about the ongoing Middle East situation, which, as I'm personally more geared towards weighing up which is my favourite disco edit or how irritating Roy Hodgson is, my contribution to the debate was intellectually and politically assured as a drunken teenager faced with a bra strap.

Coincidentally, a few short hours later I was watching Carlos The Jackal, Olivier Assayas' much-oohed-over opus on the activities of said Carlos, the David Bowie of terrorism, who theatrically ushered in the game-changing era of the setpiece terror attack, bold statements of aggression that plopped the Palestinian-Israeli situation into the laps of the world via the media.

Watching both the live events and the Assayas' take in the same day made me realise the following:

1. This situation has been going on for a while now, and not a great deal has changed.
2. Fuck going to the Yemen for a holiday.
3. Carlos' terrorist template sadly stands the test of time.
4. Being a Middle-Eastern terrorist doesn't mean you have to stop you getting your jollies.
5. Germany in the 1970s was an even more impressive place than I originally suspected - krautrock, Kraftwerk, Beckenbauer, Bowie and Iggy in Berlin - and if Carlos is to be believed, a seemingly endless parade of sexy Baader-Meinhoff revolutionary hipsters.

Points 4 and 5 are the key ones here. Carlos was a terrorist, no escaping that, but one who wore shades, smoked, drank, partied and got to make out with highly politicised lovelies - he's basically Don Draper with access to Che Guevara's humidor. But rather than rendering the situation in that simplistic, Mesrine-chic way, this superb ambitious drama instead highlight's how one man's action, and in many cases, his ignorance, served to provide a painful legacy that stretches for decades, leaving unbearable scars.

Filmed as TV mini-series stretching over nigh on six hours, Carlos leaps straight into the man's ascent in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, where his efficiency was overmatched by his determination and his balls. Finding a fan in Saddam Hussein, Carlos is sent to kill a minister who's blocking an oil deal the tyrant wants to go through. After leading a squad to storm a meeting at OPEC, the situation escalates, with Carlos taking sixty ministers hostage, before it unravels, leaving him to try to salvage the situation by flying the captives to Algiers. Forced out of the PFLP after the failure of the mission and the damage his decisions caused, Carlos ultimately becomes a gun for hire, flitting between volatile countries keen to get the rub from his notoriety.

Despite being cropped to 159 minutes, the movie version shows no sign of suffering from such a hefty edit. Neither Carlos or the viewer has the full benefit of the bigger picture, so the gaps feel organic, creating a naturalistic narrative that doesn't lean on exposition, in the same way the season breaks work in Mad Men. Intriguingly, we're offered nothing in the way of background, no reason why Carlos is so passionate about the cause. This means we're thrust in the middle of the drama, finding direction solely in his actions. With his understanding of the intricacies of the situation seemingly sketchy, his passion for the cause becomes little more than that - raw passion, of which there's plenty on show.

Smartly, Assayas allows you the option of learning the political intricacies of the situation or simply taking Carlos as a work of entertainment, cannily balancing the two - it's both a document of a pivotal moment in recent history and a character study with intrigue, action and women erotically licking live hand grenades. It's stunningly filmed, edited and directed, with a even-handed willingness to portray a string of probable bastards as simply people who are simply faithful to their beliefs - the judgement comes in hindsight as we count the long-term cost of their deeds. There's also a robust performance from Edgar Ramirez in the lead, making him an almost noble klutz, more full of bombast than canny wit, and always compelling and human throughout.

A success on plenty of levels, Carlos The Jackal is ample proof that you can actually be big and clever.

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