You say you want a revolution? Well, there are two ways to go about it, with the flowers or the guns, and this week cinema offers us a case study in extremes. On the one hand is “Marley,” a well-researched documentary exploring the life of Jamaican musician-cum-activist Bob Marley who — like John Lennon before him — has been practically sainted since his early death. On the other is “Carlos,” a gripping biopic of international terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez and the spectacular hostage-taking operations and bombings he pulled off in the 1970s at the behest of several state sponsors.
Marley, with his deeply held Rastafarian beliefs, often came off as much a prophet as a musician. Having grown up as a bullied mixed-race child, he certainly matured into a strong voice for justice and tolerance. A defining moment in his career — covered in detail in the doc — came when he agreed to play a free concert in Kingston, in an attempt to heal the political violence that was ripping his country apart. Marley was shot and nearly killed before the concert, but went on to play it anyway, famously bringing his country’s rival political leaders on stage to shake hands.
Yet outside Jamaica, Marley’s beliefs have often been watered down into a feel-good ganja-haze vibe of “One love” and “Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing gonna be alright.” As the film points out, though, Marley remained a rude boy from Trenchtown who was perfectly capable of taking a tour manager who had ripped off his band and dangling him out a hotel room window until he paid up.
Director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) has no problem in embracing these contradictions. He follows the trail through band mates, family, estranged family and mistresses, and finds a man who was not just an icon but also a savvy manager, a devoted son, a repeatedly philandering husband, a generous friend and an often-absent father. (His daughter, Cedella Marley, can barely restrain her bitterness, despite having made her own career living off her father’s legend.)
The film is also quite good at tracking Marley’s musical influences and development — with sharp anecdotes such as how his band The Wailers used to practice in a cemetery at night to get over stage fright, or the split over whether or not to make their sound more “rock” to appeal to Western audiences. As for concert footage, there’s loads of it, with an especially killer live version of “Stir it Up.”
One would think that Marley’s youthful fascination with Che Guevara would be the only point of intersection with Sanchez: one picked up a guitar, the other a Kalashnikov, but both were driven by a sharp sense of injustice born of colonialism. Marley strove to be a voice of the oppressed, while Sanchez — a Venezuelan dropout of Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba Peoples’ Friendship University — sought to be their avenging angel. Yet where Marley believed in the power of music to move people’s hearts, Sanchez — better known by his nom de guerre Carlos, or Carlos the Jackal — had only scorn for such notions.
“Words get us nowhere; it’s time for action,” he snarls in the film, while convincing the first of many lovers to participate in the armed struggle against Zionism and capitalism. As played by Edgar Ramirez, Carlos is a bundle of nervous energy looking for an outlet. He finds it with the Palestinian cause, training in weapons in Lebanon and working as an undercover operative in Europe (along with Germany’s Baader-Meinhof group and the Japanese Red Army), planning bombings and hostage-taking raids against embassies, Israeli interests and other targets.
Director Olivier Assayas (“Clean,” “Demonlover”) presents Carlos as almost a modern-day John Dillinger, charismatic, ballsy, and also not quite right in the head. Making a film with a terrorist as your lead was always going to be a risk, but Assayas walks the line with total confidence in where he’s going. While Carlos is shown as he fancied himself — a daring revolutionary fighting fire with fire in the name of the oppressed people of Palestine — Assayas is clear to address the perception others have of the man: A French ambassador taken hostage, when told how, as a former resistance fighter, he must surely understand the revolutionaries’ motivation, replies coolly that taking civilian hostages and the use of terrorism represents “everything we fought against”; a German radical, enlisted to take part in a bold raid on the 1973 OPEC Summit, laments how Carlos seeks nothing but killing but, like many in Carlos’ orbit, finds himself too deeply involved to pull out.
It’s a fast-paced film that plays like a thriller — indeed, a fictionalized version of Sanchez was the adversary for Jason Bourne in Robert Ludlum’s trilogy of novels — with some unbelievably tense scenes, made even more so by Assayas’ canny use of music by Wire, New Order and A Certain Ratio on the soundtrack.
Assayas uses jump cuts and constantly mobile cameras to give you a sense of momentum that’s relentless. Like the best crime films of the ’70s — such flicks as “The French Connection” or “Serpico” — Assayas delivers a tense, exciting story that’s rooted in the real, not phony Hollywood heroics, while also providing an illuminating look into the twisted roots of modern terrorism, where a young idealist like Carlos could compromise himself so fully that taking orders from Saddam Hussein — a murderous dictator as bad as any of the Augusto Pinochets or Fulgencio Batistas in whose opposition the Latin American left formed — would seem a perfectly reasonable proposition.
Sanchez, like Marley, wanted to be a rock star of terrorism, enjoying a salad of groupies, drugs and money to support an increasingly lavish lifestyle. Both men were fearless, narcissistic, doctrinaire (check Marley’s Rastafari views on women, for one) and brilliant at forging a persona that captured the public’s imagination. Marley, though, left a legacy of hope and music that continues to inspire — as Macdonald shows deftly over his closing credits, with a montage of dozens of people from different countries all singing Marley’s songs — while Sanchez left a body count that is hard to fathom today.
People love Marley, for all his flaws; no one — barring Hugo Chavez — even remotely admires Sanchez; unlike Guevara, he offered no inspiration behind his revolutionary violence, no dream; and for that he’s an example of how not to go about it.