The Bourne Identity, 1988, directed by Roger Young, Warner Bros.
The Assignment, 1997, directed by Christian Dugua, Columbia/Tristar
So confident was the Hollywood left in 1988 of liberal domination of the popular media that they thought they could get away with anything. There is no clearer example of this unmitigated gall and arrogance than they way they rewrote then-recent events as their opposite in the mini-series The Bourne Identity.
Based on the book by Robert Ludlum (which is outside the scope of this review), The Bourne Identity is about a ploy to catch the terrorist Carlos the Jackal, who in those days was still at large, or at any rate living in Syria. The idea was that an American agent would impersonate another American agent, a pathological killer, and would then dog Carlos’s footsteps claiming credit for all of Carlos’s kills. This would drive egomaniacal Carlos into a predictable reaction where he could be tracked and killed.
The later Bourne Identity movies removed the Carlos connection from the plot, with the result that these films are somewhat enigmatic, but that perhaps is more to the post-modern taste as well, if not that of the audiences, at least of the filmmakers.
It is not just the identity of Bourne but that of Carlos that the miniseries attempts to disguise. The son of a millionaire Venezuelan Communist, Carlos’s real name is Ilich Ramirez Sanchez. He may have been trained in Cuba (though this is disputed) but did spend time in London as a playboy and leftist poseur before attending Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, from which he was expelled after joining an Arab demonstration. He joined the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which was Marxist in ideology and enjoyed Soviet backing, and went to Jordan for training. After the PLO upraising in Jordan was crushed by the King’s army, the PLO sent Carlos back to London, where he began to set up his network. He devised a plan to blow up the offices of French newspapers deemed friendly to Israel, and made an alliance with the Japanese Red Army. From this came an attack on a French embassy and the bombing of a cafe. His next action was the attempted shoot down of an El Al airliner though his team only hit a parked Yugoslav airplane. A second attack at the Paris airport ended in a shoot out with security, with Carlos escaping.
It was shortly after this that Carlos displayed the knack of shooting people in the neck, that is played up in the miniseries as his trademark. Carlos’s PLO boss Moukharbal was picked up by the police and led them to an apartment where Carlos was partying. Carlos shot Moukharbal in the neck and also one of the police. He then shot two more police and escaped. Luckily for Carlos, Moukharbal turned out to have been working for Mossad, so the PLO did not hold the killing against him. His next attack was on an OPEC meeting in Vienna where one of Carlos’s German recruits shot a policeman through the throat. After killing another policeman they escaped to the airport with a bus load of hostages. There the ex-Nazi Austrian interior minister saw Carlos off with a handshake in route to Algiers, where he was received by the Algerian Foreign Minister. (We will cover more details of this below in the discussion of The Assignment).
His next stop was Libya which forced him to release the Libyan hostages. He flew to Tunis, which would not let him land, and returned to Algiers. The Algerians paid Carlos tens of millions of dollars (perhaps donated by another Arab government) to release the hostages, and let Carlos go free, granting him political asylum. France, where Carlos had committed several of his terrorist act, did not seek his extradition, for fear of offending the Algerians, who were treating Carlos to dinners with senior government officials and provided him with bodyguards. From there Carlos was welcomed to Libya by Colonel Qadafi who lavished money on him. Next stop was South Yemen, via Qadafi’s private jet, where he met with his PLO bosses, who were displeased that he had not killed the Saudi and Iranian oil ministers. As punishment the PLO expelled him.
In 1976 Carlos was back in Europe. Vacationing in Yugoslavia he was arrested on the demand of the West Germans, but released by the order of Marshall Tito and set to Bagdad where he was received in grand style but feared to stay because the Saudi’s were offering a reward for killing him. So he returned to South Yemen where he trained terrorists on the payroll of Qadafi.
In 1977 Carlos traveled with Libyan agents to Iraq and met with Saddam Hussein who agreed to support him in setting up his own terror network.He also took up with Magdalana Kopp, the girlfriend of one of his associates, and married her in 1979. The mini-series replaces her with a lover who marries a French general (portrayed as a sort of cartoon of a Gaullist) in order to gather intelligence through him.
Carlos began to travel internationally. He visited Colombia where French agents attempted to nab him, but blew their cover by talking to each other in French, and to East Germany, where the Stasi monitored his activities. The Germans were already actively training Arab terrorists and later backed Carlos. He also was given a safe base by the Hungarian government, and formed an alliance with Fidel Castro.
Carlo’s next attack was an attempt to blow up a nuclear power plant in France, but his rockets failed to penetrate the concrete container shell. This was 1982. That same year his wife was arrested while smuggling money to Paris from their base in Hungary. Carlos retaliated with a string of bombings and assassinations carried out with the cooperation of the East Germans and the Syrians.
By the end of 1983 western governments at last were coming around to the view that the support by Communist states of terrorist gangs was not nice and that something should be done about it. That is, it should affect trade talks and similar diplomatic dealings (linkage). East Germany and Czechoslovakia banned Carlos, now that there was a price to pay for supporting him. Even Romania, which had once hired him to assassinate dissidents in Paris and blow up the offices of Radio Free Europe, banned Carlos. The Arabs also decided that they didn’t need Carlos.
At the time the miniseries was made, then, Carlos was living in Syria on inactive status due to lack of governments to sponsor and protect his network.
In 1990, however Saddam Hussein reactivated Carlos to run a terror campaign against the United States. But Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait cost Carlos his safe haven in Syria which expelled him. He then bounced around between Arab countries, dumping his wife and child for an Arab woman while sheltering in Jordan. Soon Carlos ended up in the Sudan, where Bin Laden was also hiding out. There he was found by the French who eventually pressured the Sudanese to give him up, if the action were disguised. The French abducted him in 1994 and took him to France where he received a life sentence in 1997.
Carlos now spends his time reading and watching television. He corresponds with Chavez, the dictator of Venezuela where Kopp lives. He even wrote a book justifying himself and cheering on Bin Laden, and claims to have converted to Mohammedanism. Carlos is appealing his jail sentence, claiming that it is “inhuman and degrading treatment”. He wants to marry his lawyer. In the miniseries he gets thrown down a staircase and shot.
And the PLO? Like Carlos, they easily shed their Marxist/Soviet ideology, but kept their essential violent and repressive character. Until the more Islamic Hamas took over they ruled the state of Palestine, receiving subsidies from the professedly anti-terrorist Bush administration. Terrorism pays. Also we can see how the preoccupations of intelligence agencies distort the interpretation of intelligence. The main enemy while Carlos was active was the Soviet Union, so Carlos was perceived as essentially a Soviet agent, and he had secondary associations to the USSR that could be used to argue for this case. But his essential ideological and also practical terrorist commit has outlived the Soviet Union by fifteen years.
But back to 1988 and the miniseries: Here Carlos is a killer, but the only identified political motive is that he kills an American ambassador who is working for a nuclear-free Europe. Now, the nuclear free Europe was a major Soviet initiative of the Breshnev era intended to allow the Soviet Union to blackmail and dominate Western European nations, and break up the NATO alliance. American liberals loved it. In addition, the Carlos of the miniseries sells the intelligence gathered by his lover from the French general indiscriminately: sometimes to the Russians, sometimes to the Americans, and so on.
The Hollywood left took this life-long Marxist, political killer and frequent ally of Soviet block terrorist campaigns and in their portrayal gave him one sole political motive: to frustrate the Soviet strategic initiative favored by the American left. Other than that the miniseries makes him a gun for hire. Oddly, for the cause of a nuclear-free Europe, the normally frogophile liberals conceived of Europe with France somehow absent. But then the abundance of Russia nukes did not count against “nuclear-free” status either. The writer, Carol Sobieski (1939-1990), had twenty-five years of television writing experience, and later was nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay of Fried Green Tomatoes.
Beyond the propaganda and distorted history we get the story elements of a spy thriller well played out. Beside Richard Chamberlain as Jason Bourne there is Jaclyn Smith, then known as “queen of the miniseries” and one of the hottest babes in this history of television as a Canadian government official caught up in the events.
There is a certain amount of formula writing: romance-novel love scenes and the casting were calculated to appeal to women, and there is plenty of car and gun action for the men. The usual fat character actors play the usual sniveling underground contacts, and the central-casting Nazi types get to work for Carlos of a change.
These days plot and coherence suffer in movies, even thrillers, but the fighting is better staged, and the weapons handling much superior. We see, for example, Chamberlain putting a magazine into a submachine-gun and firing away without every chambering the first round. But then it is odd that he loads it at all, as he usually starts each encounter with a fully loaded gun, although he never buys nor carries any ammunition. Common in those days, firearms gaffs are too easily spotted by today’s audiences for the directors to overlook such details. Some story elements don’t fit in. The Bourne character has memories of seeing Carlos in action in Vietnam, though how this could be is not explained.
Oddly for a TV miniseries made in the 1980s, the DVD, in two parts running 188 minutes, is in wide screen format.
Toward the close the politics comes back, with the political equivalence line played up as Bourne denounces the US government men as being killers just like Carlos’s gang. Then there is a funeral for the one good CIA man, and a French general gives a speech in which he praises the courage and ideals of the dead, which cannot be understood by the current generation that cares only about “profit”.
The joke, of course, was on the liberals. When the miniseries came out their beloved Communist bloc was already teetering, and its borders were soon hemorrhaging refugees to the West, for the guards could not be made to shoot them. Only three years later Boris Yeltsin would interrupt a speech by the Secretary of the Communist Party saying “and now for a little relaxation” and then ban the Communist Party in Russia. This put an end to the European base of Carlos the Jackal, and cost the radical Arab states their strategic military backing. This, as much of anything, led to the crushing of Carlos’s employer Saddam in the Gulf War and the effective end of Carlos’s career.
The Bourne Identity stands witness that on the very eve of these momentous events the liberals thought that they so dominated the media that they could blatantly rewrite recent history, to give a propaganda boost to the Soviet efforts to push through a political victory giving them dominance in Europe. No reviewer would point out the complete distortion of the story, and only the Hollywood left’s version would be heard. These days the liberals hope that no one remembers their shenanigans. So let’s name the bastards: the miniseries writer was Carol Sobieski, the producers Frederick Muller and Alan Shayne (also involed in Catch-22 and All the President’s Men) and the director Roger Young. Young is a strange case. He want on to do Bible stories and sandle epics for television and also directed The Siege at Ruby Ridge.
Essentially a work of fiction and hyped up with sex and sensationalism characteristic of the work of the director Christian Duguay, The Assignment is yet another attempt to cash in on the press notoriety of the terrorist Carlos. In distinction from The Bourne Identity, this one does refer more or less to the actual Carlos. The movie, however, does not feel a need to adhere to the facts, departing from them in pointed ways.
The movie opens with Carlos’s first famous action, the Paris cafe bombing of 1974. This was done to get the French to release another terrorist, which they did, although the French claimed that they did not do so as a result of this bombing. The action was important to Carlos’s career, however, as it got him promoted by the Palestinian Liberation Organization from a support role to leader of high profile actions.
The film shows him encountering a CIA counter-terrorism man outside the cafe, whom Carlos recognizes, but who does not see though Carlos’s hippy disguise. The CIA man is played by the leftist Canadian actor Donald Sutherland, himself an object of FBI surveillance During his fling with Jane Fonda two or three years before the date of the bombing depicted in the movie. We are led to believe that Carlos was at this time already a hot shot terrorist whom the authorities were trying to track. In fact Carlos was working under his PLO boss Moukharbal, the Mossad informant, and it was no secret to intelligence services who and where he was. In fact he was a small fish, not worth going after with significant resources. The French police authorities had never heard of him.
The next Carlos action in the movie was his famous attack on the OPEC meeting in Vienna. Here the movie is fairly accurate. The needs of cinematic brevity require that many details be left out. The film does, however, feature two of the most famous actions, and it decides to alter them. In the movie the receptionist, seeing the terrorists picks up the telephone to call for help, but stops when the terrorists threaten her with a gun. The real receptionist, Edith Heller, made the call and managed to report the attack, and continued on the telephone until the handset was shot out of her hands. She then attempted to pick up another telephone at which point the terrorists emptied a whole magazine of rounds into the switchboard. The true events would have made for better movie action, and would not have taken longer. So why change the story to make Edith look like a coward?
Secondly, at the airport, the Austrians not only sent the terrorists away in an airplane with their hostages, the Austrian Interior Minister, Otto Roesch, saw them off with a handshake, widely noted in the press as “the handshake of shame”. The movie puts him at the airport but omits the handshake, and instead has Sutherland’s CIA character attempt to shake Carlos’s hand in order to seek an opportunity to shoot Carlos, but he is stopped by his cowardly embassy minder. (“Not our fight.”) This is strange. Why go some trouble to get in the handshake incident, and then turn it into something else completely with no handshake at all in the end? It looks a case of one writer altering another’s script without understanding why the story elements were in it.
We are supposed to view Sutherland’s character as over-eager and unprepared at this point. In a scene intended to remind us of Taxi Driver, he talks to himself as he straps on a device that extends a small pistol from out of his sleeve. He has no plan or team for coping with the other terrorists holding the hostages. But while introducing these inventions to set up the dramatic development of the rest of the movie, the script still keeps old elements, now irrelevant, such as bringing out the Austrian minister and introducing him to Carlos, sans handshake.
The third major departure from reality is the film’s playing down Carlos’s PLO connections and exaggerating his significance to the KGB. This goes to the heart of the movie, which is about a joint CIA/Israeli plan to discredit Carlos with the KGB so that the KGB will take him out. In fact Carlos got himself in trouble with his real bosses in the PLO due to his refusal to carry out orders in Vienna, but was let off easily with expulsion. The fourth distortion is the supposed success of this plan, which costs Carlos his save havens, especially in Europe.
Now, it is true enough that Carlos lost his safe havens, and that this led, as depicted, to his having to move to more vulnerable locations where eventually the French nabbed him. But the reason this happened has nothing to do with the spy thriller stuff that this film serves up. The reason for the change is something called linkage. Linkage is when matters of military and political concern are allowed to influence diplomatic efforts in economic areas. Depending who is involved, liberal diplomats either hate or love linkage. In the case of South Africa, liberals were enthusiastic for linkage. In the cases of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, they were against it. Liberal journalists argue that linkage does or does not work, depending on whether they are against or for the economic target.
But when the governments of the West finally got a little backbone about terrorism, and twisted the arms of their diplomats to put some linkage into trade talks, the support base for Carlos in Eastern Europe disappeared. Carlos had to go into retirement. Then the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait changed Arab politics and cost Carlos, by then working for Saddam Hussein, his save haven in Syria, and this made him vulnerable to capture.
The Assignment works as an action movie, even if a somewhat cheap and exploitative one. In the real world, however, the key to success was getting rid of the diplomatic squishes, such as the man at the embassy in Austria in this film. The film at least understands the State Department.