Synopsis – A young program coordinator at the United Nations stumbles upon a conspiracy involving Iraq’s oil reserves.
My Take – Considering how political thrillers usually make enough noise before release, I was initially quite surprised how this film flying under the radar made its way into U.A.E cinemas and on VOD last weekend. Interested by the synopsis I read about the film, I walked into this without any prior knowledge of the scandal referred in the film, along with a sense of hesitance considering the current political climate, I wasn’t quite sure of what to expect. While the misleading title directs you towards more of a fun kind of a film, instead director Per Fly’s film is quite a serious-minded drama based on the true story of the Oil-for-Food scandal that plagued the United Nations around the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The Oil-for-Food program was started in 1996 by The UN Security Council, allowing Iraq to sell enough oil to pay for food and other necessities for its population, which was suffering under strict UN sanctions that were imposed after the first Gulf War. 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. However, Saddam Hussein had exploited the program, earning some $1.7 billion through a variety of kickbacks and surcharges, and approximately $10.9 billion through illegal oil smuggling, according to a 2004 Central Intelligence Agency investigation. Wide-scale mismanagement and unethical conduct on the part of some United Nations employees also plagued the program, according to the UN Independent Inquiry Committee. Followed by half of the participating companies giving away kickbacks in return for lucrative contracts.
Considering that it is based on a memoir by Michael Soussan, a former U.N. whistleblower, this is a film that requires you to pay attention to every minor detail as it moves along; because, if you miss even the slightest thing, you’re going to be left with some pretty bothersome and unanswered questions. While the film itself is engaging with good production values, an interesting plotline and good performance, it just never rises above its conventional narrative set by all the spy films which came before it.
Aiming to be a pacy, borderline noirish thriller with espionage and a loss-of-innocence theme in its background, the film never quite becomes the exciting thriller one would expect such kind of film to be. While there are some tense moments and surprises, they are all quite short-lived. Set in 2002, the story follows Michael Sullivan (Theo James), an idealist who wants to make a difference in the world as a diplomat, in order to do so he has already applied for a job in the UN about four times. To his surprise, despite his lack of experience and young age, Michael lands up the position as special assistant to the U.N. Under-Secretary-General of the Oil for Food program, Pasha (Ben Kingsley), who also knew Michael’s deceased father years ago, when he worked in the U.S. Embassy of Beirut.
While the program was established to give the UN the right to manage the sale of Iraqi oil and use profits for humanitarian relief in the country, making over 20 million people rely on this program for food and medicine. As the budget is about 10 billion dollars, it has to be re-evaluated and re-approved every 6 months, without any complains. Once on the ground, Michael quickly discovers large kickbacks and discrepancies in the program’s budget, he also finds that there are those who want to terminate the sanctions against Saddam Hussein and end the Food-for-Oil program, and this is the fuel they could use to do so. One of these people is Madame Christina Dupre (Jacqueline Bisset) at the UN headquarters in Baghdad, to whom Michael is sent to present the case to keep the program.
Here, he ends up meeting a translator Nashim (Belçim Bilgin), who opens his eyes to a bigger problem. The more he learns, the more his sense of idealism is replaced with cynicism. He knows the right thing to do is to blow the whistle on all of this corruption, but it’s a struggle. Can he get the information he needs, and who can he trust? It seems like everywhere he turns, there is some new threat, or someone on the payroll and the situation grows more and more dangerous as people start dying in unfortunate accidents. Running for about 108 minutes, director Per Fly and screenwriter Daniel Pyne manage to capture the constant threat posed to the couple investigating the schemes running behind the U.N.’s operation in Iraq.
Director Per Fly’s film is a compromise between a search for real truths about the U.N. program and his need to make a thriller out of the scandal, as a documentary without the chills might be too turgid for any but a rigid audience. It’s to the film’s credit that it creates a sense of high-stakes peril despite us knowing the rough outcome from the get-go, and largely without simplifying its moral dilemmas into straightforward choices between heroism and villainy. Kurdish, Iraqi, American, or, in Michael’s case, Danish, the only real fault lines that exist in this volatile mixture of agendas are those between those with power and those without. All else is, as reflected in Brendan Steacy’s sleek, muted palette, shades of gray cinematography. The film also makes an interesting run at painting the many shades of grey in this corner of diplomacy.
The mature U.N. under Kori Annan was hidebound and corrupt, largely a consequence of filling its ranks with opportunists and pocket-liners, some from the First World, many more from the Third. But as Pasha, a Cypriot whose real name is Benon Sevan, points out, there are things that have to be done and awful, corrupt places where they need to be done, and what’s the alternative, doing nothing. Easily the most important relationship, here, one that plays up the ambiguity that makes the film come close to as authentic as possible, is between Michael and Pasha, neither being entirely evil or in any way saintly, but both serve the cause of emotional truth. For example, when Michael tells Pasha, that he wants to help people, he did help people, but he also helped himself, by giving a false report to the U.N. Security Council, acknowledging that the program was working well, and winning a new grant for 180 days.
This the kind of ambiguity that director Per Fly seeks: most of the principals are not good guys or bad guys, they’re like many of us: they have a good side and a bad side. Even Pasha, aware of the corruption and an agent for implementing it, tells Michael to never to lie, but to choose the facts with the utmost care, while also rationalizes that corruption is the growing pains of a new democracy. Yet despite the wry title, we don’t get sense of the constant, careful maneuvering going on behind the scenes; although Todor Kobakov’s elusive score keeps the situations heightened, the film never captures that series’ sense of the manipulation. The so called backstabbing is, in fact, mostly delivered face to face, and none of the supposed twists are remotely surprising.
But then, much of this film is unbelievable, from the way the CIA attempts to recruit Michael (an agent walks up to him in a Manhattan drugstore, flashes a badge and simply starts talking) to a final, climactic moment of betrayal (which happened in Wall Street, but never in this real-life story). The usual stand-out sequences of an espionage thriller–an assassination, a car chase, a love scene–are handled perfunctorily, as if they were mere obligations to be checked off a list. Some of the film’s inventions feel forced: The romantic subplot, complete with heavy-breathing sex scene, and some of the more cloak-and-dagger-y intrigue show the filmmakers are not simply choosing facts with the utmost care, but to some extent Hollywood-izing a complicated and tragic real-world situation. A timely film about corruption at the U.N. should have been good, but Soussan’s book came out more than a decade ago. The cloak-and-dagger adventures are now either stale or unbelievable and although the script twists the facts in an attempt to ramp up a story of misplaced loyalties, its hero always seems more naïve than idealistic.
However, the most positive aspect of the film is the acting. Certainly it is a delight to see Ben Kingsley as Pasha, a not-so-diplomatic diplomat who regularly curses out assistants, meets with mysterious Russians, and calls a meeting to order by banging his shoe on the table. He enlivens every scene he’s in, deftly delineating a character who’s put his moral reservations aside so many times he can’t remember where they are. Kingsley adds some gravitas to the endeavor; so does the still formidable Jacqueline Bisset as Christine, Pasha’s nemesis at the U.N. Even though, Josh Hutcherson was originally set to star in the film, Theo James manages to carry off his role with enough of poise. The Divergent star despite his lack of experience in dramatic roles, seems at ease here and gives quite a convincing performance. However, Belçim Bilgin even with her confidence is relegated to a back seat in a hasty romance. On the whole, ‘Backstabbing for Beginners’ is an average political thriller which despite its elaborate characters and an interesting story line never rises about its flaws.
Directed – Per Fly
Rated – R
Run Time – 108 minutes