An actual financial scandal at the United Nations becomes a rather tame cinematic thriller in Per Fly’s adaptation of Michael Soussan’s memoir. “Backstabbing for Beginners” adds elements of romance and danger to Soussan’s more staid account of how he was instrumental in revealing the transformation of the UN Oil for Food program, established to provide Iraqis with the basic necessities of life during the time the country was living under heavy sanctions after the First Gulf War, into a mechanism of graft and corruption that benefited Saddam Hussein as well as scores of private companies and some UN officials.
The narrative liberties taken by Fly and Daniel Pyne are undoubtedly the reason why in this telling Soussan has become Michael Sullivan (a bland Theo James), the principled but naïve son of a martyred American diplomat who wants to do good in the world. He is hired as the assistant to the undersecretary in charge of the Oil for Food program (Ben Kingsley), a Cypriot referred to only by the nickname Pasha (which was, in fact, the nickname of Benon Sevan, the real-life undersecretary), who had once crossed paths with Michael’s father and admired him.
Sullivan is immediately thrown into the thick of things, advised by Pasha not to be too vocal about monies that are being siphoned off from the program and whisked off to Baghdad with his boss for a meeting with Iraq-based program director Christine du Pre (Jacqueline Bisset), who believes that the whole operation is infected with fraud and mismanagement and needs to be shut down after a recent reassessment. Pasha strongly disagrees, admitting that there are flaws but insisting that without the program, ordinary Iraqis wouldn’t get the aid they desperately need.
During this bureaucratic contretemps, Sullivan is approached by his beautiful translator Nashim (Belçim Bilgin), who has an agenda of her own. She wants to reveal to the world Saddam’s manipulation of the aid program to keep supplies from his bitterest rivals, the Kurds, telling Michael that it was an investigation of the matter that led to the murder of his predecessor as Pasha’s assistant. Sullivan’s involvement with her—which soon takes a romantic turn—puts both of them in the crosshairs of the country’s most ruthless enforcer, a fellow named Rasnetsov (Brian Markinson). (It should be noted that many of the entities that profited from all the shenanigans were Russian.) Things prove dangerous even when the couple make their way back to the States, leading to an ending that recalls the one from Robert Redford’s “Three Days of the Condor.”
That 1975 movie was pure fiction, but it was far more exciting than “Backstabbing for Beginners.” That’s not merely the result of the fact that everyone knows how things turned out, but because as scripted by Fly and Pyne, directed by Fly and edited by Susan Shipton, Morton Giese and Janus Billeskov Jansen, the story is told in plodding style, mostly through long dialogue sequences that lack tension—especially since James proves such a dull protagonist, and Bilgrin a beautiful but opaque love interest for him.
There is, however, some compensation in the cunningly extravagant turn delivered by Kingsley. He’s no less histrionic than he was in the recent “An Ordinary Man,” but in that instance his highly theatrical approach merely accentuated the film’s crudely didactic purposes. Here he seems simply to be having fun, tossing out knowing bits of bureaucratic chicanery for the benefit of his supposed disciple with impish glee and spewing colorful invective in an accent that might not be identifiable but is nevertheless amusing. He’s hamming it up, but it’s a tasty meal.
On the visual side the picture is fine, with Brendan Steacy’s camerawork achieving a degree of elegance in both the U.S. and Middle Eastern sequences (shot, of course, in Morocco, standing in for Iraq). Given that North African locale, however, it’s more than a bit ironic that, at one point in his reams of narration, Sullivan notes that Baghdad was like his Casablanca. Winking obliquely in the directio0n of a classic movie it tries to emulate but doesn’t come close to matching is only one of the mistakes made by this highly embellished but pallid account of a real-life scandal.