By Liam Lacey
Rarely does a movie improve after its halfway point. But Backstabbing for Beginners — based on a real-life aid scandal in Iraq before the 2003 invasion — is an exception.
Based on Michael Soussan’s 2010 memoir about his role as a United Nations whistle-blower, the movie gains some gravitas when it abandons its hackneyed thriller trappings and touches on the unintended consequences of humanitarian projects.
The movie starts as Michael (played by Divergent hunk Theo James) enters the Wall Street Journal with a story to tell and, in an extended flashback, walks the Journal’s reporters through his misadventures in Baghdad, starting in 2002.
Following his late father’s footsteps as a diplomat, Michael revered the United Nations, and leapt at a chance to take a job with the organization in a $10 billion-a-year program in which United Nations managed the sale of Iraqi oil and used the profits to provide food and medicine to the country, suffering under international sanctions.
Like Hamlet, all occasions inform against him. Before he even meets his new boss, Michael gets approached by a CIA agent (Aidan Devine) telling him they have suspicions about “bad guys” gaming the program. When Michael presents his first report, indicating evidence of entrenched corruption, his profane, cynical boss Pasha (Ben Kingsley), shrugs it off: “The first rule of diplomacy is that the truth is not a matter of fact, it’s a matter of consensus.”
Baghdad lives up to Michael’s fantasy of a modern version of the movie, Casablanca. Everyone’s a suspect; hidden agendas abound. Shortly after he arrives he’s introduced to Pasha’s rival, a haughty French woman named Christina Dupré (Jacqueline Bisset), who is out to destroy the oil-for-food program. Like everyone else netted by this inelegant script, her speeches tend to sound like random assemblages of clichés: “You want me to sign off on your moral relativism so you can throw me under the bus when it all unravels!”
Enter a beautiful Kurdish woman interpreter, Nashim (Belçim Bilgin) who warns Michael that his predecessor had uncovered a criminal conspiracy involving Saddam Hussein and big-wigs in Western governments to skim money off the aid program. Bad guys break into his room and offer him a bribe for future favours. Michael becomes aware that he’s being closely watched by an unnerving character called Rasnetsov (Brian Markinson). And there’s a list on a USB key, and on it goes.
Backstabbing, which is shot a lot in meeting rooms and offices, has that muted palette and velvety international hotel look which creates a prickle of claustrophobic anxiety, but Danish director Per Fly (The Inheritance) can’t find the tension in the string of threats and revelations. Incidents seem to tumble forth, like clothes out of an upended laundry basket.
The best moments are about character, not action. In a few scenes back in New York, Ben Kingsley’s character exposes the failed idealist behind his cynic’s mask, as he makes his argument that tainted results are better than doing nothing. By contrast, Theo James’s Michael, who has become Pasha’s disillusioned surrogate son, has changed little — he’s a self-righteous stiff throughout. In its anticlimactic way, Backstabbing for Beginners goes to a place where thrillers rarely dare: the ethical grey zone.
Backstabbing for Beginners, Written and directed by Per Fly. Starring Theo James, Ben Kingsley, Belçim Bilgin, Jacqueline Bisset, Aiden Devine and Brian Markinson. Opens in limited release May 4 including at Toronto’s Imagine Cinemas-Carlton Cinema.