Political Thriller Backstabbing a Showcase for Kingsley
In 2002 former lobbyist Michael Soussan (Theo James) decides to make a change. He’s tired of working for corporate interests that put shareholder profit before the needs of the general population, and each day he makes a pitch to legally maintain loopholes protecting tax shelters or allow factories to keep polluting the atmosphere willy-nilly he can feel a little bit of his soul eroding with every word he utters. All of which is why Michael trades in his cushy paycheck to help run the U.N.’s Oil-for-Food program in Iraq. The idea is to swap the country’s oil for food and other forms of humanitarian aid, the altruistic designs of the program ones the former lobbyist feels he can get behind and support.
Leading Michael through this new world is U.N. undersecretary Pasha (Ben Kingsley), an eccentric, fast-talking bureaucratic showman who views lying as part of the job, especially if that tiny bit of subterfuge gets people to think they’ve come to the conclusions you’re clandestinely attempting to lead them towards all of their own. But Michael discovers all is not as it should be, and some of the power players involved with this U.N. project are more interested in lining their own pockets than they are in providing that humanitarian aid. Now the idealistic young man has a choice to make, one that could very well determine whether or not the Oil-for-Food program continues or instead comes to a rather ignominious end.
Based on Michael Soussan’s best-selling memoir, co-writer and director Per Fly (Monica Z) attempts to channel his inner Alan J. Pakula with the well-meaning, based-on-fact political thriller Backstabbing for Beginners. While no All the President’s Men, the film does have just enough going on underneath the surface to make it worthy of a cursory glance, not the least of which is Kingsley’s eccentric, wildly anarchic performance. The Oscar-winning actor might not be giving the best performance of his career but that doesn’t make what he’s doing any less magnetic, his aggressive mania worth the price of a matinee ticket all by itself.
Not that he’s showing off or going wildly over the top for no reason. There is a determined focus to what Kingsley is doing that helps augment the complexities of the political imbroglio Soussan finds himself drowning within. Pasha’s arc is a dynamic one. Better, it is also more than what it initially appears to be. Kingsley’s lively portrayal is a delicious means to an end, and where the character ends up plays a monumental role in the decisions Soussan will eventually make.
I wish I could say the same about James. I have no problem with the choice to underplay the character, to keep his emotions in relative reserve. He’s the observer here, after all, and as such his quiet detachment makes perfect sense. But James has difficulty registering all that’s going on underneath the surface. There’s no life behind his eyes, just a dull blankness that grows increasingly frustrating as the film goes on. As the central figure around which everything revolves Soussan is difficult to care about, and because of this any lasting sense of suspense or tension is undercut considerably.
Thankfully this flaw isn’t a fatal one. Fly’s script, co-written with Daniel Pyne (Fracture), doesn’t mince a lot of words and gets to the heart of this U.N. corruption scandal with deft, minimalistic precision. Even though this is a movie built around dialogue, there is still a compelling urgency to what Soussan and Pasha are involved in that kept me watching, Brendan Steacy’s (The Last Exorcism Part II) intimately lacerating cinematography a big reason why. While there’s no doubt as to where any of this is headed, getting to that conclusion still isn’t without its rewards, and thanks to Kingsley’s excellence Backstabbing for Beginners is a suitably intelligent procedural thriller I’m glad I took the time to watch.
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)