Despite delivering few actual thrills, the fact-based “Backstabbing for Beginners” qualifies as an intelligent, well-crafted political thriller based on the memoirs of Michael Soussan, an idealistic American diplomat who pulls the lid off a United Nations corruption scandal.
The year is 2002 and former lobbyist Soussan (an earnest Theo James) is searching for something more meaningful than tax shelters, sweatshops and ozone holes. He takes a job as a coordinator for the U.N.’s Oil-for-Food program, which swapped profits from the sale of Iraqi oil in exchange for humanitarian relief under the Saddam Hussein regime.
Soussan is taken under the wing of program undersecretary Pasha (the estimable Ben Kingsley), whose relationship with the truth can be summed up by his contention that what other people consider lying is merely creating “the opportunity to draw a wrong conclusion,” and whisked off to Baghdad where he encounters shadowy agendas at every turn.
While this good-looking Canadian-Danish co-production could have benefited from more tension and intrigue, the larger issue facing Danish director Per Fly’s studied filmmaking is the need to blanket the movie with extensive voiceover rather than trusting the actors’ on-screen abilities to convey the storytelling.
To that end, although James’ muted performance comes across as a bit lifeless alongside Kingsley’s more colorful, masterfully modulated turn, the characterizations nevertheless allow for satisfyingly complex, real-world renderings of conventional heroes and villains.
‘Backstabbing for Beginners”
Rating: R for language throughout, and some violence.
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Town Center 5, Encino