TERRY GROSS, host:
The last few weeks have seen the release of two critically acclaimed movies, each exploring the career of a man who has entered popular mythology. David Fincher's "The Social Network," which is in theaters everywhere, stars Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook. "Carlos" by the French director Olivier Assayas is a five and a half hour saga about the notorious '70s terrorist Carlos the Jackal. It's currently in selected theaters and available On Demand through most cable companies.
Our critic-at-large John Powers says that seeing them side by side got him thinking about how much social values have changed over recent decades.
JOHN POWERS: If you'd been born 1,000 years ago, or even 300, you would have lived your whole life in a society whose values were essentially those of your great-great-great-grandparents. These days, however, history moves at a dizzying speed. Ideas I once took for granted now seem as long gone as getting a telegram.
The depth of this cultural change struck me as I was watching two of the year's most interesting films - "Carlos," Olivier Assayas' historical thriller about the '70s terrorist Carlos the Jackal, and David Fincher's breezy "The Social Network," which centers on Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard undergrad behind Facebook. While their stories could hardly sound more different, the movies have striking similarities - and not only because the filmmakers freely admit to fictionalizing things.
Both Carlos and Zuckerberg are young anti-heroes who remain ciphers. Both are narcissistic outsiders who profess idealism while behaving un-idealistically. And above all, both embody key fantasies of the very different eras in which they became famous.
Beginning in 1972, "Carlos" charts the violent rise and seedy fall of Caracas-born Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, who dubbed himself Carlos, a charismatic political gangster played with great animal cunning by Edgar Ramirez. Whether working with Marxist Palestinians or the East German secret police, Carlos styled himself a revolutionary and he went about his work with sociopathic ruthlessness. He murdered cops, blew up cafes and trains, and in a spectacular 1975 coup that the film captures brilliantly, he kidnapped the OPEC ministers in Vienna and ferried them by jet to Algiers.
It's an amazing story and one told with gripping lucidity. Here, early on, Carlos offers his services to a leader from the popular front for the Liberation of Palestine.
(Soundbite of movie, "Carlos")
Mr. AHMAD KAABOUR (Actor): (as Wadie Haddad) I have heard the (unintelligible). He is ready to make any kind of compromise. Our organization serves the Palestinian revolution. The cowards, that's the traitors, are our enemies.
Mr. EDGAR RAMIREZ (Actor): (as Carlos) I live in London. I can be very useful there. Mohammed Boudia, who headed operations in Europe was executed by Israeli agents from the Mossad. I believe I can replace him.
Mr. KAABOUR: (as Wadie Haddad) You are still a boy. I need men.
Mr. RAMIREZ: (as Carlos) So, you don't trust me because I'm young?
Mr. KAABOUR: (as Wadie Haddad) You have to prove yourself. We will give you a mission.
Mr. RAMIREZ: (as Carlos) What mission?
Mr. KAABOUR: (as Wadie Haddad) Andre will tell you. Andre is a fighter I've chosen as Wadie successor. He is in Paris now. He will contact you.
Mr. RAMIREZ: (as Carlos) When?
Mr. KAABOUR: (as Wadie Haddad) In time.
POWERS: Despite his big words, Carlos had all the principles of a barracuda. He was basically in it for himself. But his gaudy crimes touched something in the zeitgeist, and the media conspired to dress him in an aura of rock-star cool. You see, this was an age that still believed in liberation movements, an age in which countless millions, many of them young, dreamed that the world could be saved by political revolution. Back then, the idea that Barack Obama is a communist would have had even Ronald Reagan laughing.
Be that as it may, Assayas makes it clear that Carlos never came close to liberating anybody. Utterly without a mass following, his supposedly revolutionary violence actually did very little - except discredit the left. Far from advancing a cause, Carlos' adventurism merely popularized a tactic: He's one of the founding fathers of today's globalized terrorism.
"The Social Network's" Mark Zuckerberg is also a founding father, but man, have times changed. Where 40 years ago such a brainy young misfit might have been drawn to left-wing politics, that idea seems almost absurd in today's America, even at liberal Harvard. Despite the financial crisis, our culture still celebrates the values of a go-go capitalism in which Warren Buffet is treated as a seer and you're more likely to overhear conversation about a new iPhone app than about the war in Afghanistan.
In keeping with the spirit of the age, Zuckerberg's fantasy isn't toppling the system, it's being successful within it. More attuned to code than ideas, he not only invents Facebook 2004, but he fights to retain control of it, a process that includes turning friends into foes, waging battles in court, and insulting anybody he thinks dumber than he is - meaning everybody.
Along the way, he makes himself the youngest billionaire in history and influences the daily lives of Facebook's 500 million users. If Carlos was the terrorist as rock star, Zuckerberg is a Nerd Messiah, an uncool guy who, sitting in his dorm room, has changed how we live to an extent that the globetrotting radical Carlos could only dream of.
Not that this makes him happy - at least according to "The Social Network," which views Zuckerberg's entrepreneurial ascent as coolly as Assayas does Carlos's terrorism. The movie ends with the young tycoon, hugely successful and wealthy, not a nice guy, but one of the kings of our culture. In his triumph, he seems a far cry from Carlos, who, by the time he's finally caught and imprisoned, has sunk into debauchery and irrelevance.
Of course, if the Jackal were a more generous soul, he might consider friending Zuckerberg, just to give him some avuncular heads up on how quickly, in our hyperfast modern world, a man's historical moment can fade away.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and Vogue.com.
You download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
I'm Terry Gross.