Carlos (Monday through Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET), a miniseries about the terrorist famous as Carlos the Jackal, comes to the Sundance Channel from France, after premiering at the Cannes Film Festival. (It's the second TV event to do so this fall, if you count the director's cut of the $#*! My Dad Says pilot that played in Un Certain Regard.) Internationalist in temperament and globe-trotting in setting, Carlos unreels its dialogue in multiple languages, one of which, to an Anglophone's ocular relief, is English. The scope of the production, which runs five and a half hours, is in inverse proportion to the size of its subtitles. Squinting at a 32-inch screen from a distance of 8 feet was like trying to read embossed 6-point Helvetica. Every couple minutes there pops up a sentence that's sub-legible without recourse to the pause button. This complaint would be as tiny as the type if the visceral momentum and easy intricacy of Carlos were not the chief sources of its appeal.
Director Olivier Assayas here indulges the offhand pomo-pulp streak that motivated Boarding Gate (a deconstructed D-grade thriller) and runs through Irma Vep (about the remaking of a silent serial). The former saw Asia Argento accessorizing her lingerie with high heels and a 9mm. The latter, God bless it, sent Maggie Cheung slinking across Paris in a latex catsuit. The starring sex object here, Edgar Ramirez, marries the rawness of the one to the polish of the other, further bursting a certain self-regard that proves magnetic enough to draw us, initially, past the ugliness of the character.
Ramirez plays a man acutely conscious of himself as a sex symbol, a leftist marching to the revolution at a strut. The personal is political. This resistance fighter turns himself on. What there is to know about his personality is revealed in an early scene in which, at the end of a bath, he drains a small bottle of whiskey, steps out of the tub with a minor wobble, and stalks over to a full-length mirror to puff his chest while admiring his nudity. Later, the body goes soft, but he keeps up his vanity very nicely. Or consider a later seduction scene: "Weapons are an extension of my body," he tells a ripe conquest, pressing the point home by pressing a grenade between her thighs. As incarnated by Ramirez, the Jackal—an accidental nickname bestowed by the press—is all wolf.
History, by which I mean Wikipedia, records that Carlos was born Ilich Ramirez Sanchez to a Leninist lawyer in Venezuela. Among red-diaper-baby types, he was a Baby Huey in his dimensions, even passing a teenage summer at a camp in Cuba where braiding lanyards came second to learning the techniques of guerrilla warfare. In the early 1970s, in his mid-20s, he hooked up with the PFLP, which scorned Yasser Arafat as a softie, counting anti-imperialists from France to Japan among his allies. Carlos picks up as he dashes a tail-proof route through Beirut in order to receive orders that take him to London, where he botches a hit on a "Zionist sympathizer." It takes off when he begins to plot an outlandish attack on an OPEC meeting in Vienna, setting up a superfine cliffhanger.
The first half of Tuesday's installment, in which Carlos and his crew kidnap dozens of OPEC officials and negotiate their way to a flight out of town and into infamy, stands up as a bravura mini-thriller and would be gratifying to devour on its own. Catching only this hour, you wouldn't miss much of the character's psychology, perhaps because there's not very much to miss. Assayas' eye is terrifically crisp, going on clinical, which has its liabilities. The director grants the terrorist his humanity, but the terrorist, whose inhumane head we don't quite get into, adds up to a non-hero motivated solely by ego. There is much to admire in Carlos—its easy sweep, its sense of history, its vintage Citroens—but also it's a multi-dimensional portrait of a hollow figure.