Carlos The Jackal

“Love to Ann!” shouts a tipsy and belligerent Roddy Martindale after the swiftly retreating figure of George Smiley in the 1979 adaptation of John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), “Everybody’s love to Ann!” The use of the word ‘everybody’ is far from accidental. Smiley, formerly the right hand of Control – head of the British intelligence service – is husband to a glamorous aristocrat whose voracious sexual appetites and tendency to act upon them have made him the laughing stock of Whitehall. Aside from establishing quite early on that Smiley is not a worldly man, this scene also serves to foreshadow the entire plot of the novel and Le Carre’s vision of the intelligence services. Indeed, when Smiley chases down the mole at the heart of British intelligence and reveals him to be the dashing Bill Hayden, the crime is presented as personal and not political. Hayden’s crime was not against America and her allies, or the Queen, or the west, or even the forces of freedom, it is against his friends.

What elevates the likes of Le Carre and Graham Greene above espionage writers such as Tom Clancy, Ian Fleming and Len Deighton is the realisation that espionage is chiefly a social pursuit. Spies are not military men or politicians; they are not in touch with business or the people. They are in a social class of their

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own. By virtue of the lifestyles they lead, the company they keep and the experiences they share, these spies have more in common with each other than they do with their fellow countrymen, let alone the people of their country’s allies.

When Bill Hayden explains that he betrayed his country because he hates America very deeply, his excuse feels unconvincing. Hayden did it to prove that he could. He did it because he knew that he was smarter than everyone else. Better than everyone else. His motivations were purely personal and the politics served only to hide his blushes and provide him with a tiny protective fig leaf of principle. The same is true for a number of other great literary spies such as Magnus Pym from Le Carre’s The Perfect Spy (1986), or Scobie and Maurice Castle from Graham Greene’s The Heart Of The Matter (1948), and The Human Factor (1978). All three characters are slowly ground down by conflicting loyalties – loyalties not to abstract entities, such as states or political ideologies, but to people; wives and girlfriends, fathers and friends.

Someone else who understands the personal dimension of international espionage is the French director Olivier Assayas. Originally a film critic but now perhaps best known for his meta-textual genre mash-up Irma Vep (1996), Assayas’ career has seen him swinging between two ostensibly different types of film: on the one hand, we have films such as Cold Water (1994), Clean (1997), and Summer Hours (2008). Intensely personal and very close to the French dramatic mainstream, these films are about the challenges of maintaining social connections and relationships during times of personal crisis.

On the other hand, we have films such as Demonlover (2002), and Boarding Gate (2007), cold and brutal thrillers full of transgressive sex and violence and set against worlds filled with corporate intrigue and crime. While these two strands may appear to be quite distinct, they are in fact both underpinned by a single vision of human nature. Indeed, all of Assayas’ films present humans as being fundamentally isolated from each other. Alone and adrift in a cold and meaningless universe, the only hope that Assayas’ characters ever seem to have for happiness or redemption is their flawed capacity for forging links with other, equally isolated, people. This vision of human nature as fundamentally selfish and needy combined with his realisation that espionage stories are first and foremost human stories make Olivier Assayas the perfect choice to direct a film about Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, also known as ‘Carlos the Jackal’.

The film begins in the early 1970s with Carlos (Ramirez) forging his initial links with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Despite being Venezuelan and having no obvious reason for wanting to devote his life to the plight of the Palestinians, the PFLP welcome Carlos abroad and place him under the command of one of their own. Carlos is initially disappointed by this; after all, he trained in the camps and, as a life-long Marxist, is a fellow traveller in the war against imperialist and Zionist oppression. But because he is young and because he is not known to them personally, Carlos has to prove himself. He has to pay his dues. He has to earn their trust. Trust plays a big part in the world of Carlos.

In Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco (1997) terms such as ‘friend of mine’ and ‘friend of ours’ are used as code-words to indicate the level of someone’s membership in the criminal conspiracy known as the Cosa Nostra. Carlos turns this on its head by suggesting that one is defined by one’s friendships and not by one’s political affiliations. Assayas makes this point by steadfastly resisting any temptation to provide a political or historical context for Carlos’ actions. Indeed, he makes absolutely no attempt to make sense of the twisted network of political and theoretical alliances that bound together the various revolutionary and terrorist groups operating throughout Europe and the middle east in the 1970s, and nor does he express much of an interest in the wider consequences of Carlos’ actions whether they be civilian casualties or the shifting political sands of international relations.

By refusing to place Carlos’s actions in any kind of context, Assayas beautifully foreshortens them, reducing them from political actions to social gestures. Indeed, when Carlos and his gang storm the OPEC meeting, it is immediately clear that they have a good deal more in common with the politicians and bureaucrats than they do with ordinary people. Carlos is able to discuss his intentions quite calmly with the various politicians while their civilian underlings quake with uncontrollable terror. The politicians and police know who Carlos is. He knows who they are. Everyone knows the stakes. Everyone knows the risks. It is almost as though they are all friends.

This ability to relate so easily to each other despite political differences shows the extent to which the political plays second fiddle to the personal. Carlos’ world is populated by German feminists, Syrian terrorists, Japanese Marxists, Hungarian policemen and Saudi politicians. These people all have more in common with each other than they do with the people they rule, the people they represent, or the people they claim to fight for. They are a multilingual social caste quite separate from the rest of society and they operate by their own rules, their own moral codes and their own sets of interests.

Despite presenting itself as a political thriller, Carlos The Jackal is very much a traditional drama set amidst the political elites of the 1970s. It is a drama about friendship, a drama about betrayal and a drama about the challenge of maintaining the social connections that provide our lives with meaning. In the world of Carlos, talk of ‘revolution’, ‘commitment’, ‘soldiers’ and ‘allies’ is nothing but code for expressing personal relationships.

However, while Carlos’ world is intensely social, it is subject to larger forces. The film presents Carlos as a charismatic, capable and fiercely ambitious man who is utterly relentless in his desire to win people over and make friends. For Carlos, there is no greater crime than betrayal and there is no closer bond than friendship. The first half of the film sees Carlos’ indefatigability pay off with a series of daring raids and campaigns that catapult him not only to global notoriety but almost universal popularity. Indeed, at one point Carlos is in league with the Soviets, the Arabs and the East Germans. No mere cog in the wheel of anti-capitalism, Carlos suddenly seems to embody a universal sense of solidarity and a desire to work together to oppose American imperialism. Assayas captures this moment of supreme triumph with a glorious 30th birthday party at which all of Carlos’ old friends and fellow-travellers appear to pay him tribute.

However, through the bits and piece of news-footage used almost as background-noise by Assayas, it is possible to catch a glimpse of a wider context. This context, to which Carlos seems completely oblivious, suggests that the détente between the Soviets and the Arabs is due in no small part to their growing weakness. Indeed, as Reagan ramps up his military spending, the Soviet economy moves closer and closer to collapse, forcing their intelligence services to rely more and more heavily upon mercenary subcontractors like Carlos.

In one extraordinary scene, a high-ranking official from the KGB meets with a coterie of rogue states, terrorists and religious fanatics to put a price on the head of the Egyptian president. This willingness by the Soviets to work with outsiders allows Carlos to make lots of new friends but would a properly equipped and supported KGB really have reached out to the likes of Carlos? Similarly, in Palestine, the actions of Mossad and the IDF had resulted in the gradual fragmentation of the Arab alliances on the 1970s forcing the remaining pro-Palestinian organisations to try and set their differences aside. Again, Carlos benefits from the power vacuum but only because the Palestinians are in trouble.

As Carlos The Jackal comes to an end, the winds of politics begin to shift and Carlos finds himself left out in the cold. With the end of the Cold War, the KGB are no longer around and with George Bush Sr proclaiming the ‘new world order’, all of Carlos’ Arab friends jump at the chance to come in from the cold and make friends with the great Satan. For all of his personal charisma and all of his willingness to make new friends, Carlos is ultimately the victim of chance and this is where Assayas’ cold vision of human relationships asserts itself fully. Carlos was a handsome and idealistic man who was passionately devoted not only to his cause but also to his friends but despite refusing to tolerate betrayal either in himself or in others, Carlos found himself betrayed. Betrayed because, sometimes, people are bastards… Betrayed because, sometimes, people forget… Betrayed because, sometimes, people forget that all we have is each other.

There are two version of Carlos The Jackal available to buy. There is the original five-hour version that was screened at Cannes and which has been released as a TV mini-series, and there is a shorter two and three quarter hour version that is available on a single DVD. While both versions of the film are excellent, I would firmly recommend seeking out the longer version not simply because it is more complete and true to Assayas’ original vision but because it is simply the best-paced film I have ever come across. Despite covering huge spans of time, the five hours flow past without any longueurs and without ever losing either urgency or elegance.

Whether it is detailing Carlos’ complex political friendships or painstakingly re-enacting his best known raids, the five-hour version is without a doubt one of the strongest films of the year. The shorter version cuts out the raid by the Japanese Marxists, and trims Carlos’ doomed attempts at reinventing himself as an Islamic revolutionary after the end of the Cold War, but while the cuts to the end of the film do omit a lot of detail that is not strictly necessary to the story, they do deprive you of the sense that Carlos’ life was one long staggered decline after the muted triumph of his OPEC raid and the personally promising but politically ineffective organisation he setup for himself in the 1980s. For the full power of the tragedy, seek out the long version. I promise that you will not regret it.

The DVD comes with two extras; a making-of featurette including behind-the-scenes footage, and some moderately interesting commentary by Assayas, and a short interview with Ramirez in which not very much is said. As usual with these kinds of releases, a lot more could have been done to help us fully appreciate the film, but a little is a lot better than nothing.