Introduced under the Bill Clinton administration in 1995, the Oil-for-Food programme was an important measure by the United Nations to support the suffering people of Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s decades-long reign in the country. But not only did it help the people, it also helped greedy people around the world enriching themselves with the assets of a sanctioned nation. Exclusively on DIRECTV March 22nd through April 18th, before hitting theaters and On Demand April 27th, this is where the new A24 film Backstabbing for Beginners sets in.
In 2002, the young UN programme coordinator Michael Sullivan, played by British actor Theo James (The Secret Scripture 2016, Underworld: Blood Wars 2016), was just assigned for the important Oil-for-Food programme, despite him being only 24 years of age, making him the youngest assignee. During his first stay in Iraq he meets the interpreter Nashim (Belçim Bilgin: Last Stop Salvation 2012, The Butterfly’s Dream 2013), hinting to Michael his predecessor Hassan’s death might not have been a car accident as he first thought.
Arriving in his hotel room, Michael finds it crowded with shady men around Rasnetsov (Brian Markinson: Shooter 2007, Continuum 2012), trying to pay him for his “good work in Iraq,” but he refuses the obvious bribing attempt. What he does not know yet: this is only the first of many encounters with Rasnetsov.
Further investigating, Sullivan and Nashim soon find out the true reasons about Hassan’s murder and the people involved in the conspiracy linked to the UN’s programme, making them targets to the money hungry figures in the background.
At 108 minutes, Backstabbing for Beginners is a Political Thriller recounting the tale of real-life Journalist Michael Soussan, whose memoirs formed the base for the movie’s script, written by the film’s Director Per Fly (The Bench 2000, Monica Z 2013) and Co-Writer Daniel Pyne (The Sum of all Fears 2002, The Manchurian Candidate 2004). With such a difficult topic to cover, Fly does an excellent job capturing the constant threat posed to the couple investigating the schemes running behind the UN’s operation in Iraq. Tense throughout, Backstabbing for Beginners is a prime example of how to tell its story.
Mostly shot in Morocco and Jordan, the photography does not only capture the beauty of those countries, but also enhances the well-staged scenes, giving the audience the feeling as if they were in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s times. This is only complimented by the gorgeous score by Todor Kobakov, who previously worked on such films as 2012’s The Samaritan.
However, the most positive aspect of Backstabbing for Beginners is the acting. Not only are the main characters’ performances brilliant, the film also offers well-known actors in supporting roles, such as Ben Kingsley (Gandhi 1982, Schindler’s List 1993) as Michael’s supervisor Pasha and Jacqueline Bisset (Murder on the Orient Express 1974, Under the Volcano 1984) portraying Christina Dupre. As both are experienced with dramatic roles, you can simply feel the ease they deliver their parts with, making their performances very convincing.
The only minor complaint is the lead actor’s age. While Michael is only 24 years old, his portrayer Theo James is clearly not that young anymore, which may leave some viewer wondering why the makers of the film have not chosen a younger actor to portray Michael. Not at all downplaying James’ performance whatsoever, the story goes Josh Hutcherson, mostly known for his performances in The Hunger Games film series, was casted for the role, however, he dropped out due to safety concerns with film’s shooting locations.
Overall, Backstabbing for Beginners is an interesting retrospective on the Oil-for-Food scandal of the early 2000s. It is certainly not 100% accurate, but it is also not meant to be since it is a Thriller and not a Documentary. With elaborate characters, a well-accompanying score, and beautiful shots, this film is a must-watch for every fan of Political Thrillers. For these reasons, CrypticRock gives Backstabbing for Beginners 4 out of 5 stars.