Film Review: Carlos
What makes a good biopic? Biopics tend to cramp too much material into a 2 hour movie and often wind up being a shapeless collection of incidents, rather than a movie telling a real story. They too often lean towards the “and then this happened and then that happened” method and thus lack real drama, trying to say too much and wind up not saying anything at all. The biopics that really work are usually the ones that focus only on a certain period in the life of its subject. A good example is The People Vs. Larry Flynt, which really is not so much about Larry Flynt as it is about his struggle for the freedom of expression, as it mostly focuses on his legal battle for said subject. Another example is Ed Wood which only focuses on couple of years in Ed Wood’s life in which he made his two most famous movies, it also works because it doesn’t pretend to be very faithful to what really happened. Having things actually happen like they did in real life doesn’t always translate to good drama on the screen.
Carlos falls somewhere in between these two categories as a large portion of it does focus on a certain part of Carlos’s life, but it also tries to cram a lot of information in a short amount of time. The fact is that there are two versions of the movie, one is 330 minutes long and was both shown as a TV series, but also released as one, very long movie. In all that amount of time a lot of info can be fitted into a coherent whole. But then there’s another version, a 160 minute one, which is being reviewed here.
Carlos tells the story of the infamous terrorist Carlos “The Jackal” (it’s worth noting that he’s never actually called “The Jackal” in the movie). It doesn’t go into his back story at all, but begins in 1973, when he had dabbled in terrorism for a while and was about to become one of the most infamous terrorists in the world, and nearly half the movie is focused on the “OPEC raid” which Carlos is probably most (in)famous for. In it he and a group of other idealists/terrorists held a group of government officials hostage for three days in December of 1975, and wound up killing three people.
Director Olivier Assayas is mostly known for unconventional films, such as Irma Vep and Summer Hours, so it’s interesting to see him tackle such a conventional subject. He can’t totally escape all the conventions of biopics but still manages to do some unconventional and very interesting things with the subject and style, for instance by using 80’s new wave music on the soundtrack. He also avoids glorifying his subject, without making him a monster either.
The theme of youthful idealism giving in to, or clashing against, adult conservatism (among other things) is a subject which Assayas has often tackled and it appears here, at least to a certain extent. In the beginning Carlos is a young (only 24 years old) and idealistic “freedom fighter” who want’s to rid the world of capitalism and believes to be fighting for a good cause, not unlike “Che” Guevara. This seems a far cry from his image as one of the world’s most infamous terrorists. But gradually he turns into the character he’s more known for being, as he gives in to greed and vanity. His bloodlust is there from the beginning, though, and he never hesitates to kill anyone who betrays him.
This 160 min. version suffers considerably from being shortened as the movie doesn’t entirely add up to a cohesive whole. There’s a lot of ideas tossed around but the pacing is erratic and the structure somewhat unfocused. Is this a movie about what makes Carlos tick? About what makes terrorist drive? About the struggle between idealism and capitalism? It delves into all these subjects but can’t really get deep enough into any of them.
Still, the film works pretty well on most levels and is overall very well crafted and often fascinating. Assayas manages to build such tension in the often riveting OPEC raid scene, which covers nearly half the movie, it might in fact have been enough just to make a movie about that single raid. This 160 min. version of Carlos is really two different movies, a terrific heist movie and a rather unfocused but solidly crafted biopic, packed into one.
Finally, lead actor Édgar Ramírez’s performance has to be mentioned as he is a powerful presence in this movie. He looks a bit like a latin Jim Morrison and portraits Carlos just right, bringing a touch of charisma and considerable intensity into the role.
Final verdict: Carlos is not a typical biopic and director Olivier Assayas puts a lot of style and craft into the material. But the movie still suffers from a certain shapelessness and is not as moving as it ought to be. It most likely works a little better in the 330 min. version.