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Backstabbing for Beginners (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 11, 2020

Backstabbing for Beginners


Starring Theo James, Ben Kingsley, Belçim Bilgin, Jacqueline Bisset, Rossif Sutherland, Rachel Wilson, Brian Markinson, Shauna MacDonald, Daniela Lavender, Aidan Devine, Peshang Rad, Mishu Vellani, Dwight Ireland, Zahir Gilani, Hattie Kragten, Carlos Pinder, Elena Khan, Abbas Abdulghani, Alex Hatz and Fabio Lusvarghi.

Screenplay by Daniel Pyne & Per Fly.

Directed by Per Fly.

Distributed by A24. 108 minutes. Rated R.

Despite its snarky title, Backstabbing for Beginners is not an irreverent, comic-tinged look at history, like I Tonya, The Death of Stalin or The Big Short. No, other than the slight shock of seeing Sir Ben Kingsley cursing with such polished nonchalance, Backstabbing for Beginners takes itself and its (mostly) true story very seriously. Deadly seriously.

Which makes sense, because it is about a very consequential, if greatly forgotten, scandal in international diplomacy which happened about 15 years ago, right in the leadup to the war in Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein. And no, this film is not about the George W. Bush administration, or the fictional “weapons of mass destruction” – at least not directly, both things are touched upon.

Backstabbing for Beginners is instead about a scandal in the United Nations. Specifically, it was about the Oil-for-Food Program scandal, a program which allowed the economically-sanctioned Iraqi government to trade oil to get food, medical supplies and other humanitarian needs to ordinary Iraqi citizens. Unfortunately, less than ten years into the program, it was shut down in disgrace due to corruption, favoritism and kickbacks, which nearly led to the toppling of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The film looks at the program, and the whistleblower who brought the whole thing down. That whistleblower was Michael Sullivan (Theo James of the Divergent series), the son of a career diplomat who died in a Middle East bombing, who has gotten his dream job with the UN. (Sullivan is a fictional name, the real man’s name was Michael Soussan, who wrote a book by the same title on the subject.)

Even Sullivan recognized upon getting the job that he was probably not qualified for the position he is handed at age 24, the assistant to the head of the Oil-for-Food program, basically one of the top aides in the whole program. After merely two years in the workforce – those spent in a very different capacity on Wall Street – it seemed a bit suspicious that he would get such a high-level post. Particularly since his predecessor in the post had died a few days earlier in Iraq, due to “an automobile accident,” a/k/a being run down in the street by a corrupt Iraqi government official to retrieve some damaging intel that the man had been slipped.

The heart and soul of the program is being fought over by two career diplomats, the suave and charming Pasha (Kingsley, cursing gleefully with a slightly fruity accent) and the no-nonsense bureaucrat Christine Dupre (it’s nice to see Jacqueline Bisset getting a meaty role like this again). Dupre is mostly portrayed as something of a villain through much of the film, but it turns out she was not wrong about her doubts about the program.

While in Baghdad, Sullivan gets into a romantic affair with Nashim (Belçim Bilgin), the beautiful local interpreter who is hiding the fact that she is Kurdish and may perhaps be a spy. (I believe this romantic entanglement is pretty much made up, trying to goose the slightly staid storyline a bit.)

Backstabbing for Beginners perhaps has a bit of bad timing, being released so soon after Beirut, another (mostly fictional) look at a model-handsome American diplomat in the not-so-distant past of the Middle East. Beirut is simply a more interesting, action-packed look at life in the region. Backstabbing for Beginners, on the other hand, is mostly a bunch of diplomatic meetings, financial negotiations and ethics arguments, broken up by the occasional car bomb. Both are worthy films and tell important stories, but Beirut is more stimulating cinematically. And frankly, Jon Hamm makes for a more intriguing leading man than the attractive-but-slightly-bland Theo James (from the Divergent series).

Backstabbing for Beginners is a smart and principled movie, and one that brings back to light a scandal which has pretty much been forgotten. I wish I could say it was a more interesting film than it is, but if you catch it playing on cable or streaming and you have a couple of hours to kill, there are far worse ways to do spend your time.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: April 27, 2018.

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