Negotiating is not an inherently visual act. That is why it takes a very particular kind of director to be able to pull off making a small handful of people sitting around an office desk or restaurant tables talking into a stylish affair. Robert Altman made his name on this style, and his movies such as M*A*S*H or Nashville are rightly considered classics. Put the wrong director in the chair, and the audience is treated to the cinematic equivalent of quaaludes. See Sydney Pollock’s ill-fated, rather stupid The Interpreter, or you can save the brain cells and know it is dull as heck. Thus it is always a pleasant surprise to encounter a director that understands how to make dialogue snap and sizzle.
Danish-born director Per Fly crafts a mesmerizing spell with Backstabbing For Beginners. Based on Michael Soussan’s memoir of the same name, Theo James portrays the fresh-faced United Nations diplomat who serves under Pasha (Ben Kingsley). They are tasked with figuring out the viability, as related to the cost, of the Oil-for-Food program that has been enacted since 1995. This is to determine whether or not it will continue, but their report is not the final say. It needs to go through and be verified by tons of higher-ups, including Christina Dupre (Jacqueline Bisset), the head officer of the program. She is staunchly opposed to continuing the aid to the Iraqi people as she knows about mass corruption it fosters. As Michael learns more about how the medicine and food supplies are delivered, he uncovers secrets about his boss and decides to take a stand.
“…asked with figuring out the viability, as related to the cost, of the Oil-for-Food program…”
Fly’s dynamic direction keeps the audience enthralled as corruption is brought to light, and double-crosses take place. While there is only one scene that some might label as an action scene in the more traditional sense of explosions and the like, Backstabbing For Beginners is not short on thrills. Pasha and Michael are both diplomats, so they wine, dine, schmooze, and talk to everyone they meet for the duration of the movie. The way they conduct themselves, trying to figure if they’re lying or not, the give-take nature of what each of them sees as the endgame is immersive.
The screenplay, by Per Fly and Daniel Pyne, is unrelenting with sharp, crisp dialogue and well-rounded, three-dimensional characters. As Pasha describes what him taking the bribe meant it becomes clear that he is just a man with an unenviable job doing what he considers best in a broken system. Michael is no saint either, though he has more resolve than his boss. He is rash and goes behind Pasha’s back to help a friend, even though she may not be who she really claims. That is the beauty of the screenplay, every single person has a motivation that is clear and understandable, and they will do what they must to serve those purposes.
A few heavy-types, working on the behalf of corrupt government officials, break into his hotel room and plead their case. They leave an envelope full of cash on the desk. As they are leaving, Michael tells them that they “forgot” their envelope. Thus, not accepting the bribe. He just looks down, frustrated he even has to deal with them. Another actor might have tried making that scene into a big moment, maybe staring down the guys in the room. Theo James, best known for the Underworld and Divergent movie franchises, gives a suitably subtle, brilliant performance. That deference and carefully chosen wording showcase how suit Michael is to his job, while the refusal says he won’t make it.
“…every single person has a motivation that is clear and understandable…”
Ben Kingsley gives a tour-de-force performance. Not quite as subtle as James, as he is not afraid to make a scene to get someone’s attention, but he never reaches parody levels. A reporter goes to Pasha to get his side of a juicy UN news story. He gently opens the door and blocks it with his body at first, until stoically taking a seat at the patio table. It is these small gestures that build-up to a fully formed character. Bisset, whose has steadily been acting since 1966, is a bit crazier than either of her male co-stars but no less great.
Todor Kobakov’s score is excellent and infuses the movie with a lot of the energy it expresses. The editing is tight and creates tension when two people are just sitting across the table from one another. The cinematography is the one technical aspect that is good but not noteworthy in any manner.
Backstabbing For Beginners is a mesmerizing, intense watch with beautiful acting and powerful directing. The screenplay is exceptional and balances characters and story with ease. I highly expect to see it on tons of year-end best-of lists.
Backstabbing For Beginners (2018) Directed by Per Fly. Written by Per Fly, Daniel Pyne. Starring Theo James, Ben Kingsley, Jacqueline Bisset, Rossif Sutherland, Rachel Wilson.