The title misleads, but in a way that sets up a pleasant surprise: Per Fly’s “Backstabbing for Beginners” is not some archly tongue-in-cheek takedown of the art of the con, but a relatively 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. Fictionalizing those incidents just enough to play as a pacy, borderline noirish thriller — available via DirecTV a month before its April 27 theatrical release — Fly and co-writer Daniel Pyne adapt Michael Soussan’s memoir of his time as a bright-as-a-button entry-level U.N. aide whose idealism curdles almost as fast as his star rises within the unwieldy organization.
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 faultlines 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.
In fact, the film is so respectful of the complexities of realpolitik that it could become a little turgid. So it’s a good thing a terrifically watchable Ben Kingsley is on hand to deliver a mischievously profane performance (a Cypriot-accented “Fack!” is his most distinctive verbal tic) as Pasha, the U.N. undersecretary in charge of the Oil-for-Food program and the film’s most thoroughgoing moral relativist. When Michael (a very good Theo James, whose inordinate handsomeness for once doesn’t actually shatter one’s suspension of disbelief) applies for his U.N dream job, wanting to follow in the footsteps of his diplomat father, it is Pasha who plucks his application from the pile, whisks him to Baghdad and quickly inducts him into the way things are done: expediently.
Pasha’s U.N. rival Christine Du Pre (a steely Jacqueline Bisset) is appalled by the program’s systemic corruption. Pasha maintains that even limited success is better than nothing, when it comes to getting medical and food supplies to the hardest-hit regions. He tasks Michael with writing the program’s report, coaching him, “Not to lie, never to lie. But to choose our facts, our truths, with the utmost care.”
Further muddying the waters are Michael’s budding relationship with his translator Nashim (Belçim Bilgin), a survivor of Saddam’s genocidal campaign against the Kurds; the suspicious death of his predecessor who had uncovered evidence of malfeasance; and the unnervingly close attentions of shady security officer Rasnetsov (Brian Markinson).
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. But perhaps here, unlike in the Iraq of 2002-’03, the ends do justify the means. However massaged its truths may be, Fly, whose last film was the disappointingly shallow biopic “Waltz for Monica,” delivers an elegantly shot, compelling impression of the compromises and corruptions of the international aid world, and the compromised, corrupt, but not necessarily evil people who run it.
How much the charismatic Pasha believes in his own persuasive patter and how much he is lying even to himself remains a mystery — but then so does the extent to which Michael needs to justify his own collusion. It’s that ambivalence that gives the two-hander scenes between Kingsley and James their provocative ambiguity (and far more emotional heft than the love story), plotting an entire moral universe in the fatherly chemistry between crooked mentor and pliable protégé.
“I was swept up in the romance of it,” says Michael in a voiceover hard-boiled with hindsight, “High adventure and a worthy cause. It’s like Baghdad was my ‘Casablanca.'” It turns out, of course, to be a topsy-turvy version, in which idealism is not hard won but bitterly lost, and beautiful friendships end before they’ve really begun.