Iraq-Set ‘Backstabbing for Beginners’ Is Too Crammed With Information to Make Sense

Backstabbing for Beginners takes an unsexy geopolitical scandal and makes it even more drab. Danish director Per Fly’s adaptation of Michael Soussan’s 2008 memoir of the same name focuses.

That on the rampant abuses in the UN oversight of the Saddam Hussein-era Oil-for-Food program in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Populating it with diplomatic ciphers who exist merely to spell out the convolute plot for the viewer. If the heavy-hande script’s expository dialogue weren’t enough. The film’s protagonist, Michael (Theo James), frequently intrudes with interminable voiceover narration that further details the ins and outs of the bureaucratic morass. While doing virtually nothing to develop him as a flesh-and-blood character.

Set in Iraq but film in Morocco with Baghdad play by Toronto, Copenhagen and Casablanca. Starring a British actor impersonating an American, and lense by a director from Denmark, Backstabbing for Beginners is something of a mess.

A real-life political thriller about the doin’s in the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. That between the end of the Gulf War and his execution in 2006, center on the 2002 scandal that reveal billions of dollars. That had been stolen from the United Nations’ humanitarian program call Oil-for-Food. It involves so much internecine crime that it would be hard to understand under any circumstances. But this film is a drier head-scratcher than it needs to be.

The impossibly movie-star handsome Theo James, British-born and jockeying for position.

That as a Hollywood hunk who can also act, stars as Michael Sullivan, a pseudonym. That for diplomat-turn-journalist Michael Soussan, on whose publish memoirs the film is based. In 2002 he was a 24-year-old idealist hire by the U.N as an assistant to Pasha. The veteran Undersecretary General in charge of the ambitious Oil-for-Food program with a yearly budget of $10 billion.

Despite the fact that Michael’s father, a respect diplomat, was killed in a U.S. Embassy bombing when Michael was five years old. He wants to follow in his footsteps, worshiping his dad’s memory. Since his sister is also married to a government official, diplomacy is part of his family’s DNA. So the U.N. job is a dream come true that he sees as a chance to devote his career to helping people and saving the world. He has no idea of the horrors that lie ahead.

His first day on the job, Pasha (Ben Kingsley) dispatches him to Iraq to write a favorable report. That for the Security Council that will keep the Oil-for-Food program going.

Almost immediately, he’s up to his handsome profile in political intrigue and physical danger, learning things Pasha hasn’t told him. Including the suspicion that his predecessor, who died in a car accident, was a victim of foul play. The CIA informs him that the Oil-for-Food program is being sabotage. That by a massive conspiracy of bankers, businessman and politicians including Saddam Hussein, the Mafia, and even Pasha himself.

In a small, wast role, Jacqueline Bisset makes a rare appearance as the U.N.’s regional field director who knows what’s going on, is sick. That of the lies, and determine to tell the truth about why the program is failing. She’s the obstacle in Pasha’s way of milking the program of the profits from medicine and supplies, and he urges Michael to destroy her.

It’s a labyrinthine narrative with complex relationships too numerous to keep track of.

When Michael is left behind in Baghdad to investigate further. What he finds is a reign of terror that includes torture, land mines, cluster bombs, nerve gas and chemical genocide. The gigantic loads of information dispense in every scene are not always easy to follow. And considering all of the corruption, kickbacks, government abuse, bribes, black market crimes and dying civilians, a romance. That between Michael and his pretty interpreter, who turns out to be a Kurdish spy seeking asylum in New York, seems like unnecessary filler.

It’s not much of a surprise when the hero learns he’s been a pawn in a global conspiracy in which his boss is a major crook, or proves diplomacy (like everything else these days) is no longer what it use to be. Theo James has the looks, skill and range of an actor on the verge of superstardom, and Ben Kingsley injects some humor into his role as master villain, but the script (by director Per Fly and Daniel Pyne, who wrote The Manchurian Candidate) is too crammed with information that it sounds like historical footnotes. There are so many ideas rattling around in Backstabbing for Beginners that are never resolve, and so many duplicitous characters that are never satisfactorily explain, that the end result is a muddle of confusion and violence that could end the future of tourism in Baghdad forever.


Rating: R (for language throughout, and some violence)
Genre: Drama, Mystery & Suspense
Directed By: Per Fly
Stars: Theo James, Ben Kingsley, Jacqueline Bisset
Written By: Per Fly, Daniel Pyne
In Theaters: Apr 27, 2018 Limited
On Disc/Streaming: Mar 22, 2018
Runtime: 108 minutes
Studio: A24 and DIRECTV


Chandler Levack
Whatever potential was evident in Soussan’s source material is wast on empty clichés and spoiler-alert casting.

Rex Reed
It involves so much internecine crime that it would be hard to understand under any circumstances, but this film is a drier head-scratcher than it needs to be.

Nicholas Bell
Backstabbing for Beginners doesn’t convey the complexities of this scandal nor the troubled, compromised humanity of its characters.

Liam Lacey
The best moments in director Fly’s middling film are about character, not action. Yet it does go in its anticlimactic way to a place where thrillers rarely dare: the ethical grey zone.

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