A still from Carlos.(Film en Stock)

Modern terrorism has shaped our world in dramatic and obscure ways: Washington’s unbridled power to read our emails and tap our phones, President Barack Obama’s extraordinary decision to kill an American citizen hiding in Yemen because his sermons have inspired terrorist attacks, the lines at airport security as federal agents confiscate such potentially lethal items as toothpaste, cuticle scissors, and Diet Coke.

But long before al-Qaida and Sept. 11, long before virgin-seeking suicide bombers began blowing up embassies, U.N. offices, churches, mosques, and weddings, long before beheadings made Islamist terror synonymous with barbarism, long before IEDs and VBIEDs exploded into Western consciousness, and long before the lines of bearded fanatics were injected with tranquilizers and packed off to Guantanamo and CIA black-site prisons, there was Carlos.

“Carlos the Jackal,” as the press fawningly called Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, was the first modern terrorist superstar. For nearly 20 years beginning in the mid-1970s, he staged or masterminded spectacular, made-for-the-media attacks, initially for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a radical splinter of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization. Then, after becoming a radical superhero on a par with Che, he took refuge in the Eastern Bloc and ended his career as a thuggish, bloated egomaniac paid to kill on a fee-for-service basis by some of the Mideast’s most odious regimes.

Now the attention he so fiercely coveted has finally been paid with Carlos, a five-plus hour French film that won acclaim at Cannes last spring. But he is still not satisfied. The film is not accurate, he recently complained in a jailhouse radio broadcast from Poissy high security prison, in France, where he is serving a life sentence for the 1976 murders of two French secret agents and an informer. His commando team, for instance, was not a bunch of “hysterical men waving submachine guns and threatening people,” as the film suggested, he said. They were “professionals,” he declared, “commandos of a very high standard.”

French filmmaker Olivier Assayas evidently disagrees. His bio-epic of the life and times of the Venezuelan-born revolutionary—brilliantly portrayed by Edgar Ramirez, another Venezuelan who is not related to his namesake—depicts Carlos as a brutal, charismatic narcissist who pleasures himself through violence. Members of his band of international revolutionaries are portrayed as vicious, fanatical amateurs.

Filling three DVDs at a running time of 5 hours and 19 minutes, Assayas’ film requires stamina and a strong stomach for violence and talk about political violence. But the film is far from hagiography—and it is, in its own way, a masterpiece that not only provides a riveting portrait of a celebrity-seeking killer but indicts the intellectuals and media promoters who helped transform a vain thug into a romantic figure, helping perpetuate the leftist myth of the terrorist as freedom fighter.

Though al-Qaida is never directly mentioned in the film, Assayas clearly sees a connection between the leftist assaults of the ’70s and the religiously inspired terrorism that would supplant it 30 years later. Although I haven’t seen the two-and-a-half-hour-long condensed version prepared for commercial distribution, the longer, uncut film is a nuanced portrayal of the descent from alleged revolutionary fervor into self-satisfied, self-serving violence justified in language long-stripped of meaning or relevance. Carlos may talk the talk, but he knows all too well that his ideological justifications for revolutionary terrorism are a simply a pretext for doing what comes naturally to him—killing.

Carlos has flaws. But it is hard to think of a better recent film about the nature of modern terrorism or its practitioners. In December, the New York Film Critics Circle awarded Carlos its prize for the best foreign-language film.

The movie, divided roughly into three parts, opens curiously, with Israel’s assassination of Mohammed Boudia, a leader of the militant Palestinian Black September group, in June 1973. The car-bomb murder outrages the brash young Carlos and prompts him to try to advance his fledgling career by asking to succeed the murdered martyr as the Popular Front’s London terror chief. No mention is made, however, of the massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich the year before—an outrage that stunned the world and led Israel to dispatch a hit team to kill Boudia and others who planned or conducted the operation.

Waddi Haddad, then the Popular Front’s Beirut-based leader, quickly senses possibilities in this brash young Westerner. Carlos is given membership in the Front, a small pistol, and only five bullets—yet another suggestion that this Palestinian terror group, which ran very profitable extortion and protection rackets in the Persian Gulf and received large subsidies from various Arab governments, was made up of desperate and impoverished fedayeen.

The film quickly shifts to “new left” London, where Ilich, the son of a Communist-sympathizing Venezuelan lawyer, has just chosen “Carlos” as his nom de guerre. In a posh restaurant, he argues revolutionary doctrine with his gorgeous girlfriend, a fellow leftist. Chiding Carlos for not having attended a protest against Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, she says the Chilean people need his support. Demonstrations bore him, he replies. They serve no purpose. Chile’s generals and the CIA don’t care about their protests. War demands action. She must commit to the revolution, which means supporting his new group and its as yet unspecified actions against the imperialists.

Guerrilla action against well-armed states is doomed to failure, she tells him. The balance of power is against the terrorists. But Carlos insists that the under-armed Viet Cong had crushed the “gringos.” His path, too, will lead to glory.

“Is that what you want?” she shoots back, accusing him of “petit bourgeois arrogance.”

True glory, he replies, is acting without credit on behalf of the revolution.

Anyone politically active in the late ’60s and ’70s will recall such heated discussions, which Assayas recreates with such perfect pitch that one feels the director’s own sense of nostalgia, if not for the violence that such conversations justified then for the rhythms of the talk. The heady counter-culture is faithfully depicted—the free, guiltless sex, the pounding strains of rock and seductive South American ballads. Carlos’ sideburns are neatly trimmed; his cream-colored suit, with no tie, exquisitely cut, his black leather jacket is well worn with a pistol shoved into his skin-tight jeans. The Belmondo of terror sports a black “Che” beret and trademark sunglasses. It’s all a far cry from the caves in Tora Bora.

Yet the idea of a more perfect form of human existence is equally alive to these amoral hedonists as it is to their dour successors. No TV sets are to be seen in Assayas’ version of the radical underground. Revolutionaries prefer playing guitar, dancing, and singing together as equals. Friends and fellow killers drink, talk, and chain smoke before and after sex and their terrorist attacks, which are portrayed in the film with equal demonic fervor. There are lengthy static shots of Carlos nude, basking in his own virility. The alternation of narcissism, white-walled art-gallery-like spaces, and sudden violence sucks the viewer into a cold place that destroys any romantic illusions about political violence that the art direction of the movie might nourish.

The second part of the film is a highlight reel of Carlos’ terrorist career, in which the achievement of deadly spectacles requires the intricate manipulation of—and finally, manipulation by—cynical Middle Eastern regimes, the former Soviet Union, its Eastern European satellites, and Palestinian revolutionary groups. The linchpin of this segment is Carlos’ notorious attack on OPEC headquarters in Vienna and his kidnapping of several dozen oil ministers in 1975. The attack is brutal, but this is a more innocent time—an era before concrete Jersey barriers surrounded official buildings and private security guards manned the entrances to company headquarters and wealthy homes. Carlos and his multinational crew of fanatics simply barge into the building and quickly seize control. (KSM, eat your heart out.)

After three guards are killed, Carlos flies his hostages to the Middle East in a borrowed jet. But he’s outmaneuvered by duplicitous Algerians and loses control of his operation. Cornered, he accepts a lucrative deal to release the hostages, and he is exiled to a popular Front terror camp in Yemen, where he is ousted by Haddad for insubordination.

Carlos and his mostly German comrades then go freelance and focus increasingly on finding work and well-funded patrons. Syria pays the tab for a while, helping Carlos create arms-shipment routes through eastern Europe in exchange for attacks on designated targets. For a brief time in Budapest and Damascus, Carlos lives what seems a semi-normal life—marrying Magdalena Kopp, his beautiful German-revolutionary companion, and fathering a child. He dotes on his daughter when he is not busy killing on demand and philandering in the name of revolution. While Carlos and his pals continue espousing their commitment to “fighting for socialism” and utter such slogans as “the only struggle that matters is between the oppressed and imperialists,” the words ring hollow. A sense of desperation builds.

The film’s turning point is the destruction of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union. Suddenly Carlos and his not-so-merry mercenaries are a risky embarrassment to their patrons. The world has changed, a cynical Syrian paymaster tells them coolly, ousting Carlos and his group’s German co-founder from their villas. Even the CIA considers him a “historical curiosity,” a “Communist windbag.” Carlos and his gang are forced to live by their wits and their not inconsiderable linguistic resources: English, German, French, Spanish, and Arabic are all spoken convincingly by Ramirez and the other actors.

The last third of the film depicts the betrayal and capture of an aging, paunchy Lothario, still sufficiently vain to undergo liposuction on his love handles in a Khartoum hospital. Magdalena has gone—taking their child to live with Carlos’ wealthy brother, Lenin, in Venezuela. Another younger revolutionary tends lovingly to his needs. He tells visiting Iranian agents that their struggle against American imperialism is his fight too, and that he and his new wife have become Muslims, a conversion of obvious convenience that fails to impress his polite but indifferent new patrons.

Carlos still pretends that he is the cock of the walk, but visions of feather-dusters now surround him. The era of leftist revolutionary terror has ended. Counter-terrorism is rising along with the new world order, which is closing in on him.

In fact, Carlos has long become indistinguishable from the prostitutes who pleasure him, all in the same business. The film deftly makes the point in Europe, when a prostitute he has struck for daring to demand more money turns out to be a confidential informer for a security service.

Sudan’s Islamic government, led by the suave, crafty Hassan al-Turabi, offers Carlos protection but then sells him out to France. In 1994, acting on an American tip, French police employ Sudanese soldiers to kidnap him from a Sudanese government guest house as he recovers from surgery. Bound and drugged, Carlos is bundled onto a private jet and flown to France, where he has been incarcerated since.

Although the movie ends with a scroll of the deaths, disappearances, and incarcerations of the various members of Carlos’ gang, France has permitted the Jackal, now 60, to operate his theater of the absurd from his cell. Earlier last year, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, his latest wife and also his lawyer, sued the film’s producers to block its release because he had not been given the right to vet or edit it. The judge sided with the film’s producers. But Carlos would not relent. He didn’t give “a damn” about the “myth of Carlos,” he told his radio audience. But he did care about historical accuracy. It was Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s erratic autocrat, and not Saddam Hussein who had ordered the OPEC attack, he insisted. And he didn’t smoke cigarettes. “I have smoked cigars since 1969,” he said in the radio interview. “Everyone knows that.”

A scene from Carlos, showing the 1974 bombing of the drugstore Saint Germain in Paris: