Rounding out the Walker Art Center’s October retrospective of French director Olivier Assayas is his most recent work — a 5 and 1/2 hour television miniseries about notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal — simply titled Carlos. Split into three parts, Carlos follows the Venezuelan-born and self-proclaimed revolutionary from his initial involvement with a radical Marxist-Palestinian liberation group in the early seventies, his rise to infamy after leading a group which took sixty hostages and left three dead at OPEC headquarter in Vienna in 1975, a series of bombings throughout Western Europe in the eighties, to his ultimate capture in Sudan by French special police in 1994.
Carlos is the latest in a string of epic biopics about criminals and/or revolutionaries, following Steven Soderbergh’s largely ignored double feature Che (produced and starring Benicio del Toro), and the French duology Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (also in 2008). Critically and financially successful upon release in France, Mesrine, the story of a seventies French gangster and quasi-folk hero, earned star Vincent Cassel (of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve and Ocean’s Thirteen) Best Actor prize at the Cesars (the Gallic Oscar-equivalent). Benicio del Toro’s dream project on revolutionary Che Guevara, unfortunately, flopped in the U.S., despite it’s breadth and quality (although some would question the gentle, Messianic-spin on Guevara’s legacy).
Assayas’ attempt at the sprawling, outlaw biopic steers clear of the risk of theatrical release altogether, as it was always intended as a miniseries for French and German television. In the Netflix Age, where well-budgeted series like AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and to a lesser budgetary extent, HBO’s The Wire, have developed rabid fanbases, the home theater is the venue of choice for most modern audiences, especially when it comes to products spilling over the, let’s face it, unacceptable running time mark of 2 and 1/2 hours.
Unlike those aforementioned and addictive series, Carlos has so many historical vignettes to squeeze in, its hard to settle into any particular one. With the exception of the transition between Part One and Part Two, you may feel more obligated to persevere through Assayas’ opus, rather than shake with anticipation with each closing episode.
Despite, this, it must be said that Carlos features fine performances all around, particular that of the wisely cast Edgar Ramirez (who’s even from the same Venezuelan region as Carlos). Ramirez provides the necessary chutzpah to embody a man of such contradiction, infamy, and charisma. And his uncannily similar square face spreads some extra authenticity (though no one would argue that the real Carlos is easier on the eyes than Ramirez, another touch which breeds a bit more captivation). Ramirez (who also appeared in Soderbergh’s Che — the epic connections just don’t stop!) is also a capable canvas for the realistic twenty-five year age span depicted in the film. He doesn’t go full-De Niro with the weight gain, but doesn’t go full hackish Jared Leto as Mark Chapman either.
Assayas wields an astonishing sense of period detail for much of the miniseries, an immersive effect that enables an impressive and seamless blend of real archival news footage from the various atrocities (or counter atrocities) perpetrated by Carlos and his associates. With the unavoidable misgivings that come with the migraine-inducing chore of shaping an epic biopic, Assayas’ craftsmanship and shear ambition are undeniable.
Throw Carlos on your queue when the time comes, or if you dare, grab a donut cushion for the Walker’s viewings this Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m.
Steve Swanson is a floor director and