When 24-year-old Michael Soussan (Theo James) becomes professionally and emotionally involved with a Kurdish translator, Nashim (Belçim Bilgin), who’s looking to expose the widespread corruption in the United Nations’s oil-for-food program in early-aughts Iraq, he tells her: “I took this job for a reason. I want to help people and I want to make a difference.” But the audience never senses the expected passion or humanity in his voice, as James delivers these lines in an affectless monotone that declares his character’s beliefs without bothering to make them feel convincing.
A bland everyman with no defining traits or interests besides his desire to serve God and country, Michael is the central focus of Per Fly’s Backstabbing for Beginners, a piece of well-meaning but oppressively dull and dour agitprop that seeks to do little more than unload exposition and dryly spout out historical facts. Its single-minded objective is seemingly to inform us about a largely overlooked scandal that emboldened the United States to invade Iraq. But the film conveys this remarkably complex situation with all the artfulness and grace of a Wikipedia page, filling the screen with a series of explicative conversations set in offices, hotels, and cars throughout which people don’t so much talk to each other as indirectly to the audience.
The film, based on the real-life Soussan’s 2008 memoir Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy, examines the intricacies of the oil-for-food program through its main character’s eyes. The special assistant to Under Secretary General Benon “Pasha” Sevan (Ben Kingsley), the young upstart becomes the unflappable moral center of the film as he begins snooping around and discovering that people at every level of the U.N. program and the Iraqi government are taking payoffs and kickbacks. Despite confronting the far-reaching effects of the malfeasance of a $10 billion aid program, the film never captures a sense of how high the stakes are, and in no small part because its characters are so hollow.
Aside from a few brief allusions to the influence that Michael’s father, a diplomat killed in a 1983 bombing in Beirut, had on his son’s career choice and a non-starter love story between Michael and Nashim, the film is almost mechanical in its relaying of information. As such, one may wonder whether Fly would have been better served by making a documentary about the oil-for-food scandal. As a vessel for conveying boatloads of compelling facts about an underreported story, Backstabbing for Beginners serves its purpose, but it’s scarcely a compelling rendition of Soussan’s memoir.