Movie Review: Carlos

The series Carlos premiered on Sundance channel during the second week of October 2010.

Writing a critique about this Canal Plus drama is agonizing. The cast is perfect. The historicity of events is closest to the known record. Drama buildup is impeccable, despite the length of this three part series.

The only problem is that this great production leaves viewers in love with Carlos, a shallow demagogue, a Marxist-turned-Islamist and a gun for hire who worked for the world's most notorious secret police forces of Iraq, Syria, and Libya, among other oppressive regimes.

From his prison in France, Carlos today praises 9/11, Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, a stance that is absent in this movie, which shows the man more of a sexy Don Juan than a human beast who justifies wholesale killings of civilians as being part of an ongoing world revolution against capitalism and imperialism.

It should be noted, however, that Carlos's brutal behavior surfaces from time to time. In Part III, he cold-bloodedly ordered the killing of a Lebanese journalist who had previously interviewed him.

The handsome Edgar Ramirez skillfully plays Carlos, the nom de guerre of Illitch Ramirez Sanchez. Born to a Marxist Venezuelan father, Carlos was studying in Moscow when he was deported and found himself training with Palestinian guerilla groups in Lebanon's Bekaa valley. Carlos was recruited by Palestinian Wadih Haddad (played by Lebanese composer and singer Ahmad Kaabour), member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the mastermind of its militant network responsible for dozens of bombings and plane hijackings throughout the 1970s.

Carlos became Haddad's man in Paris, where the Venezuelan militant organized several attacks that culminated in his killing of two French police officers. Carlos was forced to flee and rejoin his master in Aden, then the capital of the Communist Southern Yemen. While there, Haddad tasked Carlos with kidnapping OPEC oil ministers at their meeting in Vienna in 1975. The operation did not go according to plan, and Haddad and Carlos departed ways thereafter, with each of them maintaining his own militant network.

Haddad died in 1978 and his network eventually disbanded. Secret services from the Soviet bloc and a few Arab countries found in Carlos a useful tool to settle scores with their opponents, and sometimes with each other, as in the case of Iraqi and Syrian rivals.

With the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1990, however, the world changed, the Soviet bloc was disbanded and Carlos lost his friends. He went into hiding in Khartoum, Sudan. But his hosts eventually caved to French pressure and handed him over in 1994. He was tranquilized and flown to Paris, where he was tried and sentenced to life in prison.

Carlos the movie is also a good history account of events in, or related to, the Middle East. The producers understandably air a disclaimer that, despite their research, they were forced to fictionalize part of their movie.

Still, the movie highlights several aspects of the currents that underlie the so-called liberation movements in Arab countries. More often than not, violence employed by the dictator regimes of Iraq, Syria and other tyrants aims at improving their bargaining positions with Western nations, or at settling scores with each other.

Perhaps one of the most telling similarities between then and now is the Syrian unwavering campaign to sabotage a French documentary that showed Damascus's involvement in the killing of French Ambassador to Lebanon, Louis De Lamar, in 1981.

Like in 1981, when Syria employed whatever violence at its disposal to prevent any leveling of accusations against its involvement, Syria in 2010 still uses all kinds of possible terror to derail a UN-created tribunal to bring to justice the perpetrators of the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria is widely believed to be involved in the crime, along with Lebanese partners such as Hezbollah.

Also telling is the way the Middle East changed at the time, which still apply today. Syria housed Carlos for several years. But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990 while the US stood on the verge of recreating a new Middle East, Syria changed course and kicked Carlos out. This should stand as a reminder to all those who believe today that Syrian troubling behavior can be changed that, absent any cataclysmic changes in the region, such as an eclipse of the rising power of Iran -- Syria's staunch sponsor and ally -- Damascus will never change course.

In terms of production and for those who like to dig into details, there are certainly find glitches. War-time Beirut had a different infrastructure than the one depicted in the movie, thus different sidewalks and airport landscape. And while the movie makes sure to reprint the famous red Middle East Airline ticket, for instance, actors carry the new series Lebanese passports in scenes depicting the 1970s. Also, the Sudanese police do not drive Harley Davidson motorbikes or US-made Jeeps. Lebanese security personnel do.

Such details should not derail viewers. After all, even the best-funded of Hollywood movies depicting the Middle East (such as Robert Redford and Brad Pitt's Spy Games, George Clooney's Syriana, or Steven Spielberg's Munich) commit errors. Compare Syriana, with its $50 million budget and barely comprehensible spoken Arabic, to Carlos, its $20 million budget and nearly impeccable use of several languages and attention to detail.

Crossposted on News from Washington.