Based on Michael Soussan’s memoir, Backstabbing for Beginners tries to mix a heavy dose of truth and sprinkle it with thriller elements. For the most part it succeeds thanks to another standout performance from Ben Kingsley.
The disclaimer behind Backstabbing for Beginners is that it is inspired by Michael Soussan’s experience as a U.N. official who exposed the United Nations’ “Oil for Food” scandal, so if you’re looking for a ton of narrative veracity behind this feature, you may be disappointed. That being said, Soussan’s book is out there for perusal, and it would be wise to treat this cinematic experience as a different beast.
Michael Sullivan (Theo James) is a 24-year-old investment banker whose diplomat father was killed in the 1983 U.S. embassy bombing in Beirut. Determined to make a difference in the world and honor his father, Sullivan lands a job with Pasha (Ben Kingsley), a powerful diplomat in charge of the Oil for Food program. Upon delivering reports on the plus and minuses of the operation, Sullivan discovers that a ton of corruption, where bribes and profiteering abound, is poisoning the program. Along with Saddam Hussein receiving funds from a program that was supposed to help Iraqis, Oil for Food’s corruption may also reach the highest branches of the UN.
On one level, Backstabbing for Beginners serves as a value added story by spotlighting this moment in history (the story is set in 2003), and director Per Fly treats this aspect with the appropriate amount of insight and attention.
That being said, the story’s strongest aspects doesn’t lie when Michael gets involved with a translator (Belcim Bilgin) who is hiding her Kurdish roots. Though both James and Bilgin do fine work in their respective roles (and they do have chemistry), Backstabbing for Beginners is ultimately Ben Kingsley’s show. As witnessed in Sexy Beast, Security, and Iron Man 3, Kingsley excels at playing morally shady (or let’s just call them evil!) individuals. Although Pasha is not the darkest of souls, he has a compelling (and dangerous) view on how to manipulate the truth.
While Pasha is playing a game of chess against his adversaries (Jacqueline Bisset plays a colleague who attempts to exploit his corruption), Michael simply out of his element, often bravely (and blindly) attempting to do the right thing no matter what the cost.
Whenever Kingsley and James share the screen, Backstabbing for Beginners comes to life, as this teacher/mentor relationship, in all its subtly abusive glory, makes for a consuming watch. More interactions between the pair during the 108 minute run time would have been welcomed, but thankfully there’s enough meat to the bone to make Backstabbing for Beginners a movie worth recommending.
Lastly, Theo James (Divergence) continues to prove he has leading man chops, and hopefully Backstabbing for Beginners will be a gradual step towards that direction. His good looks are undeniable but don’t hold that against him; he holds his own against Kingsley and makes the romance with Belgin believable.
Though I wanted a much more guilty pleasure, viscerally charged thriller from Backstabbing for Beginners (the moniker itself promises a deliciously good time), Ben Kingsley and Theo James make this a film worth adding to your list.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5