Backstabbing for Beginners is an idealist’s look into the Iran Oil-for-Food Program scandal that rocked the UN. Directed by Per Fly, Backstabbing for Beginners isn’t as dramatic as the real-world event it tries to dramatize.
I knew very little about this film going into it. I thought that it might be a comedy; it’s certainly a good title for a comedy. Alas, Backstabbing for Beginners is most definitely not a comedy. In fact, it tries to be many things, most of it unsuccessfully.
Based on the international bestselling novel Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy by Michael Sousasan, Per Fly’s film is a look into the corruption scandal in the UN Oil-for Food Program. The script by director Per Fly and Daniel Pyne features Theo James as Michael, a young private sector employee whose family has had a long, distinguished and deadly career in diplomacy and now wants to do something good for the world. Ben Kingsley plays Pasha, the responsible party for the UN’s Oil-for-Food program.
The story opens with the end in mind as Michael stands in front of the Wall Street Journal building. Theo James offers a voice over which begins with details about why he’s standing in front of the building, akin to “it was a dark and stormy night.” As the story progresses, we learn that his family is full of diplomats and that his father was KIA in the embassy bombing in Beirut. Pasha knew his father, and in an early scene as he is picking out a new executive assistant, he spots the resume.
This scene and the sequences that follow it try very hard to play the globe-trotting espionage-type thriller card. While there is intrigue into why Michael’s predecessor is dead or why Pasha aims to cock-block Jacqueline Bisset’s Christina Dupre, there is a love story involving a translator by the name of Nashim (Belçim Bilgin). The story uses this as another line of intrigue and mystery because the nature of her character is not revealed.
The trouble with the story is that there are too many intersecting threads that really don’t pay off as it vacillates between being a semi-autobiographical drama and a docudrama. I understand the intentions of the film were to speak to the grifting the wracked the United Nations, and was as big a scandal as the Iran-Contra Affair was for my generation.
Politically, the story is important. From an educational point of view, this film puts the people of Iraq front and center while others got wealthy. The story reached the Secretary General of the United Nations and the people largely responsible were brought to justice. However, the story leaves us with a poor taste in the mouth because there are still people out there, who are responsible and have not been brought to justice.
The thought process behind the story and the film had good intentions. The trouble is that the story never really decides which direction it wants to go and a romance that just doesn’t work because the stakes are ineffective.
Perhaps this might have worked better as a comedy.
Backstabbling for Beginners is rated R by the MPAA.