Backstabbing for Beginners – Movie Review


Backstabbing for Beginners


Directed by: Per Fly

Starring: Theo James, Ben Kingsley, Belçim Bilgin and Jacqueline Bisset


Rated: R

Run Time: 1h 48min

Genre: Drama, History, Thriller

2 1/2 Frames out of 5

By: Shari K. Green


Director Per Fly opens his film by showing the Iraqi people and their blind loyalty to the dictator, Saddam Hussein and most importantly, their unwillingness to see him as the monster that he is. It’s a brilliant move to put on display how easy it is for people, though their leader is taking their country into decline and them personally into poverty, malnutrition and slavery, follow anyway, refusing to believe the person they support would do anything to harm them. It’s very much what we are now witnessing all over the world, even in America where it was never thought possible. This movie was made to help us understand the importance of Civics being taught in our schools, something being pulled from today’s curriculum to the detriment of the people and of the state.


Set in New York in September of 2003 and based on a true story, ‘Backstabbing for Beginners’ tells the story of a brave young whistleblower named Michael Sullivan (James). Michael, whose father was his hero, desperately wanted to follow in his footsteps. In order to do that, he needed to work to try and help people. His father, a diplomat, died in a bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut when Michael was only five. He worked at the United Nations and spoke of how the U.N. was founded and why it was so important for the world that it exists.

Now, at age twenty-four, Michael finally lands his dream job as a program coordinator working for Pasha (Kingsley), the Under-Secretary-General of the U.N., as his special assistant. Pasha runs the largest humanitarian program in U.N. history, Oil-for-Food. The Oil-for-Food program was started in the late 1990’s to grant Iraq enough oil to purchase food and necessities to its people. Once the Gulf War began, sanctions were imposed and the nation got sicker and poorer.


Michael feels privileged to be working in the office in charge of trying to feed over twenty million starving people, however, instead of honor, virtuosity and the law working to help those in need of support, what he finds is corruption, thievery and bribes. Only some of the money goes to the people, a large chunk of it benefits those at the top. Michael is hired to look for any inconsistencies and to make sure everything is by the book. Working on his first report to hand into Pasha, he finds a great deal of skimming off the top, service fees that don’t add up and kickbacks that need to be investigated. Michael explains how up to or more than 30% of the funds is missing, not to mention that the Kurds are getting skipped for more money to go to Hussein’s hometown. Pasha takes the report and shreds it.


Pasha tells Michael to choose his truths wisely. Michael’s very naïve heart is crushed. Pasha, a good man, does what he can but also does for himself. He’s okay with corruption, justifying everything by saying that he’s happy there’s decreased malnutrition and starvation and that people are getting the staples. Christina Dupre, (Bisset), an officer at the U.N. is tired of the payoffs and malfeasance and she intends to fix things. Michael finally wises up when Christina, who refuses to falsify her report as Pasha does, ends up meeting an untimely death. Michael is also offered a bribe and is told by Nashim (Bilgin), that his predecessor didn’t die in an ‘accident.’


This is an important film for idealists to see and should be regarded as a reminder of what we all have to lose if we don’t keep our eye on the ball. It doesn’t matter the country in which you live, power corrupts and if we’re not paying attention, we, like the Iraqi people found out, can crash into anarchy. Twenty billion dollars of the Food-for-Oil money got diverted from the program and everyone seemed to profit. No one, Michael found out, no matter how much you may like them, can be above suspicion.

At least some good came out of Michael getting the position he held. He went to the Wall Street Journal and told his story of finding oil vouchers worth billions and even handed them a list of names he had procured. He went on record, as well, adding that he needed to take responsibility and give his name. Someone had to own what was going on to lend the story the credence it needed to be trusted. What he did led to the largest and most significant changes in the U.N.

The movie has a love scene that doesn’t really seem to fit. Once you’re involved in the story and getting to the truth of things, it’s really the last thing you want to see. Theo James is also not a strong enough actor to show the emotion the part truly needed and Michaels gullible nature and naivete does get old but for the larger part of the story, even though it works some to explain that most of those about to lose democracy are indeed Michael (not aware of what’s going on around them) this is a must-see because the message is too important not to be.


*’Backstabbing for Beginners’ opens exclusively at AMC Arizona Center


About Shari K. Green

Shari became fascinated by films when at the age of seven she saw a movie being made in front of her house. As a teenager she immersed herself in the culture of film working on stage and then became a cinephile, working in a video store. Since then she expanded into film criticism writing for the last eight years and she has now written, directed and produced several short films and is currently working on a feature film project with her production company, Good Stew Productions, which she created with a few of her friends. Her favorite movies are “The Big Chill” and “Lonely Boy” and she enjoys watching Woody Allen films above all others.

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