The name “Backstabbing for Beginners” sounds like a nasty teen drama, a high school how to on how to survive in the mean hallways of twelfth grade. “Mean Girls” with an edge. Instead, it’s a political drama, the kind of thriller that relies more on the cerebral inner workings of backroom manoeuvrings than the kind of things the newspapers write about. Proving the old adage that everything is high school, however, it turns out the two milieus are not dissimilar.
Based on the memoirs of Michael Soussan, the film details the corruption within the United Nations Oil-for-Food program during the early years of the Iraq War. Theo James is Michael, a principled but naive aide to an influential U.N. undersecretary Pasha (Ben Kingsley). A greenhorn, he is soon schooled in the crafty way Pasha does business. “The first rule of diplomacy,” says the older man, “is that the truth is not a matter of fact but a matter of consensus.” As the United Nations Iraq War-era Oil-for-Food program goes south Michael begins to poke around into the suspicious death of his predecessor. Coming into the orbit of Nashim (Belcim Bilgin) Michael struggles with where his loyalties should lie.
“Backstabbing for Beginners” isn’t a thrill ride. Deliberately paced, it covers a lot of ground. To guide the viewer through the story’s socio-political unpredictability Danish director Per Fly layers exposition throughout, in the form of explanatory dialogue and narration. He limits the detail to the ins and outs of what turns out to be a global conspiracy, but it slows down the action, sucking away much of the tale’s inherent tension.
The conspiracy and whistleblowing does not provide the rollercoaster ride it could have been but it provides Kingsley with the opportunity to chew the scenery. It’s a plum role for the 74 year-old actor who unleashes a controlled but spirited performance as the morally compromised, foul mouthed Pasha. It’s also a pleasure to see Jacqueline Bisset as his nemesis, a stern enemy who isn’t afraid to get under the skin of the undiplomatic diplomat.
“Backstabbing for Beginners’s” story of corruption from our recent past, complete with Pasha’s self-serving doublespeak about the “the growing pains of a new democracy,” is timely, if not exciting.