‘Backstabbing for Beginners’ lacks advanced nuance
Directed by: Per Fly
Written by: Per Fly and Daniel Pyne, based on the book by Michael Soussan
Starring: Theo James, Ben Kingsley, Jacqueline Bisset, and Belcim Bilgin
“Backstabbing for Beginners” – “It’s like a surprise party without the cake.”
A character in the big screen adaptation of Michael Soussan’s memoir of the same name utters the aforementioned line during the third act, but this particular quote might sum up one’s experience with this 1-hour 48-minute movie. Actually, that is not accurate, because “Backstabbing for Beginners” – a recounting of Soussan’s experience with the United Nation’s Oil-for-Food Programme just prior to and also during the 2003 Iraq War - does not include many surprises, and it does not feel like a party.
Theo James – probably best known as Four from the “Divergent” trilogy - plays Michael Sullivan (not Soussan), a highly competent 24-year-old upstart who interviews for and then lands a special assistant position, reporting to a United Nations undersecretary general named Pasha (Ben Kingsley) who oversees the famous or infamous (depending upon your point of view) programme.
Sullivan, an idealist who aspires to make a difference, dives - straight away - into the job but quickly learns his boundaries from Pasha, whose frequent and curt curses straighten the new diplomat’s spine. Although Sullivan needs to hear tough talk, because Pasha places him on a plane to Baghdad to help ensure Oil-for-Food continues its funding for the next 180-day cycle.
Pasha bends rules and ignores pleasantries but admittedly stays within the lanes of acceptability, relatively speaking. Certainly, the programme distributes food to hungry Iraqi people but also includes litters of kickbacks along every stop in a silent case of whatever happens in Baghdad stays in Baghdad.
The film centers around Sullivan’s moral compass and how far will it remain north, as he experiences corrupt commerce in the Middle East.
Now, a few specific personalities enter his life - a questionable Russian irritant, Rasnetsov (Brian Markinson), a beautiful local ally, Nashim (Belcim Bilgin), and Pasha’s rival, Christina Dupre (Jacqueline Bisset), who wishes to see the programme end - but from the moment that each character steps into the audience’s view, their individual story arcs become painfully obvious.
This 20-something wonderkid - who can whip up a 75-page report in less than a day and speak in front of the United Nations like the leader of the free world - sometimes successfully cuts through the designed smokescreens, but then completely misses others. Meanwhile, any novice “Law & Order” fan can repeatedly predict the various backstabs 20 minutes before they strike. Rather than claim victory for every correct guess, an air of boredom may unfortunately enter your personal space.
Even though the events may be true via Soussan’s book, the conversational pacing does not translate very well on-screen. Sure, diplomats do not usually concoct the thrills of your everyday secret agent, but typing up reports, inspecting food containers and navigating through very few key characters - who telegraph their every move to the audience - are not exactly ingredients for cinematic success.
Writer/director Per Fly does not really give James much to do either. Then again, although the actor’s eyes are wide with curiosity throughout Sullivan’s journey, his monotone energy does not help lift the film. An even keel temperament may be a great skill for a diplomat, but not necessarily for a lead protagonist delving into bureaucratic corruption. For some unknown reason, Fly decided that James should also narrate the picture, but the frequent guided expositions feel unnecessary.
Well, at least we know Michael’s name, because James – as the narrator – states, “My name is Michael Sullivan,” about three times. Hey, if we had any doubt, right?
“Backstabbing for Beginners” does offer insight into a regrettable period in Iraq, but as a film, it is rightfully named. The predictably-written characters and their conflicts never come close to raising the material into intriguing advanced nuance, and given the subject matter, they really should.
Maybe I’ll buy the book.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.