CARLOS Directed by Olivier Assayas

Originally produced as a miniseries for French TV, Carlos devotes five and a half hours to the two-decade career of international terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, more popularly known as Carlos the Jackal. Like the spellbinding 2008 German feature The Baader Meinhof Complex, it manages to deliver a steady stream of action thrills while examining international terrorism of the 1960s and ’70s for lessons important today. Olivier Assayas—the brilliant director of Summer Hours (2008), Demonlover (2002), and Irma Vep (1996)—follows Carlos (Edgar Ramirez) from his worldwide notoriety in the mid-70s through his decline in the 90s, when the fall of the Soviet bloc left him a man without a country. Music Box will screen the entire work in three parts several times this weekend; Monday through Thursday it will screen a condensed version running 165 minutes.

I haven’t seen the shorter version, but I would hate to lose one moment of the gripping 66-minute sequence—really the heart of the movie—in which Carlos plots and executes his spectacular 1975 raid on the meeting of OPEC ministers in Vienna. With a handful of commandos, he stormed the conference and took the staff and delegates hostage. His plan was for them to board a DC-9 and fly to each of the member nations, where their respective delegates would either read a statement of support for Palestinian independence or be executed, but he got only as far as Algiers before the plan fell apart. Viewers disinclined to give Carlos five and a half hours would be well rewarded by sampling just the OPEC raid, which begins 95 minutes into part one. A relatively self-contained story with its own cast of characters, it’s both suspenseful and insightful, exposing Carlos as a man of high rhetoric but malleable commitment.

Assayas opens part one in July 1970, when 20-year-old Ilich Ramirez Sanchez arrives in Beirut to angle for a terror assignment from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Born in Venezuela and educated (briefly) at Patrice Lumumba Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow, “Carlos” is living in London and proves his commitment there by shooting a Zionist businessman and bombing an Israeli bank branch. The most frightening scene in part one re-creates the little party at a Paris apartment in June 1975 that exploded into a bloodbath after three French intelligence agents showed up at the door looking for him. Incredibly the agents were unarmed, and in the movie one of them even agrees to a drink; when they confront Carlos with the PFLP informant who’s betrayed him, Carlos shoots all three agents and then executes the informant. This episode apparently recommended Carlos to the PFLP, because six months later he was entrusted with the elaborate plot to kidnap the oil ministers.

As written by Assayas and Dan Franck, Carlos is charismatic, passionate, and ruthless. “Anyone who resists will be executed,” he tells two men he’s recruiting for the OPEC attack. “Anyone who doesn’t obey our orders immediately will be executed. Anyone who panics will be executed. Even if a member of the commando doesn’t obey my orders, or doesn’t follow the instructions outlined in advance, he will be executed.” Taking advantage of a security breach, Carlos and five commandos will storm and subdue a conference of several dozen delegates. The potential for casualties is high, and though Carlos has already crossed over from civil resistance to armed violence, two German dissidents recruited for the operation stand on opposite sides of that line: the icy, pathological Nada (Julia Hummer) has already done time for shooting a cop, while the reluctant, idealistic Angie (Christoph Bach) wonders if he can kill for their cause. Carlos brushes aside any such reservations with the terrorist conceit that they’re soldiers: “We’re talking about the minimum military requirement of any revolutionary struggle.”

The battlefield, however, turns out to be more complicated than Carlos expected. Nada is trigger-happy: in the chaotic and horrifying assault on the conference room, she flushes out a plainclothes cop, marches him outside to the elevator, and shoots him point-blank through the neck. Another man rushes her and gets a bullet in the face, then eight more rounds into his supine figure. Angie proves himself by tossing a grenade at a trio of Austrian soldiers but is shot as he’s fleeing, and his deteriorating condition adds to the tension as Carlos negotiates for the DC-9. And for all his revolutionary bluster, Carlos imperils the mission more than anyone else: a man he kills in the initial struggle turns out to be a Libyan delegate, and Colonel Gadhafi is so enraged that he withdraws his clandestine support for the PFLP operation.

Assayas neatly outlines Carlos’s political thinking with a vividscene in which the terrorist divides the delegates into groups: in one corner, neutral countries (Nigeria, Ecuador, Venezuela, Indonesia); in another, nations friendly to the Palestinian cause (Iraq, Libya, Kuwait, Algeria); in the third, countries colluding with the West (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, the United Arab Emirates). The prize fish of the bunch is Ahmed Zaki Yamani (Badih Abou Chakra), oil minister of Saudi Arabia, who Carlos finds under a table and extracts from the room for a private meeting. Carlos threatens to kill him if the Austrian government doesn’t cooperate. “But I also know that a man of your intelligence won’t hold that against me,” he purrs. “Because after all, you know our struggle very well. You’re aware of its greatness and nobility.” The ashen minister quietly deflates Carlos’s revolutionary fervor: “How can you just sit there coldly, telling me that you’re gonna execute me, and expect me not to hold it against you?”

Carlos’s political calculus begins to break down after he and his crew have hustled the delegates out of the building, onto a bus, and then aboard the DC-9 supplied by the Austrian government. The plane takes off (with an ailing Angie on board) and lands in Algiers, but contrary to what Carlos has been promised by the PFLP, the Algerian government condemns the attack and demands that all the hostages be released. Libya also condemns the attack and refuses to let the terrorists land in Tripoli, which leaves Carlos with no allies among the OPEC nations. Informed by the pilot that they can’t make Baghdad without stopping to refuel, Carlos is trapped, and in a meeting with President Houari Boumedienne he agrees to trade the hostages for $20 million and the terrorists’ escape. “I killed two men!” Nada shrieks. “I didn’t do it for money!” Carlos maintains the same paramilitary pose as before, but his view of himself has evolved somewhat. “I’m a soldier!” he says. “I’m not a martyr!”

Carlos’s compromise marks the midpoint of the film, and the second half chronicles his long, slow descent amid the shifting seas of world politics. After the OPEC raid he broke with the PFLP and, possibly with funds from the ransom, established himself as a sort of terror contractor. The East German Stasi protected him for years, and in the early 80s he operated from Budapest, but after the Berlin Wall fell, it became increasingly difficult for him to find a country that would tolerate his presence. Syria expelled him in 1991, and he bounced from Jordan to Sudan to Khartoum. The French finally got him in Sudan, and in December 1997 he was convicted and sentenced to life for the murders in the Paris apartment two decades earlier. Carlos shows the dashing revolutionary of the 70s going to seed in the 90s, fat and dispirited as his marriage breaks up and he casts around for someplace to call home. By that time he’s already been exposed as the politician he is, willing to sacrifice any life for the revolution except his own.