Backstabbing for Beginners (2018)
Written by Per Fly & Daniel Pyne
Directed by Per Fly
As I’ve watched my way through A24’s catalog of films, there is one thing that always seems to signify you’re in for a bad time: The DirectTV logo. The co-productions with DirectTV are almost always a guarantee you’re in for a bad to mediocre time. Backstabbing for Beginners is no exception. The film adapts the memoir of Michael Soussan, a journalist who worked for the United Nations’ Food for Oil program. His fictional avatar in the film, Michael Sullivan holds the same job under Cypriot diplomat Costa Passaris. Sullivan quickly discovers that the system to trade Iraqi oil for food and medicine to benefit the struggling people of that nation is deeply corrupted. Sadaam’s people have allowed a black market for medicine to build up while delivering expired meds to ailing children. It’s as obvious as a sledgehammer to the face that Costa is in on the scam and so Sullivan has to gather enough evidence to take his boss down.
I used to enjoy the television series Homeland, mainly its first season and some of its second. The problem with the show was that it devolved into a trite, cliched procedural rather than a long-form series of story arcs that focused on characters. Carrie became “bipolar agent” and nothing more. Brody became “unhinged terrorist in sheep’s clothing” and never broke past that definition. In watching Backstabbing, I got the sense Homeland served as an inspiration. Every character is painted in the broadest of strokes, spouting dialogue that feels obvious rather than nuanced. The villains are clearly the villains before we learn anything about them. The protagonist is the blandest, most boring lump of nothing.
This is a profound shame because the real story that is the seed for the film is a good one. It addresses the corruption of the Western world inflicted upon an already corrupt nation in the Middle East. It takes place before the Iraqi War so it can add to our understanding of why things went south so quickly after that invasion. There could have been a pretty engaging movie here if the filmmakers had taken a more All The President’s Men route and focused the story around the investigation. Instead, they want a love story between the protagonist and a translator, a suspense movie with an underbaked organized crime figure, and a tale of political intrigue with the conflict between Sullivan and Costa. None of these ever amount to much and are padded with by the numbers plotting and dialogue.
The love story between Sullivan and Nashim, the translator, is a plot element invented for the film and is one of those tropes that grates on my nerves. This is essential Avatar. An outsider can’t understand this strange new world. His romance with a native allows her to exposit to him how things work. However, they are star-crossed lovers and elements beyond their control seek to break them apart. That’s it. Nothing new or exciting is added. Costa has this annoying habit of reacting to revelations in the film by spouting “Fuck, kid” to Sullivan. I get that the screenwriters thought this was some clever character quirk because it feels like they were very proud of themselves. Benjamin Kingsley who plays Costa continues to prove my suspicions that he’s a mediocre actor that has happened to get a few good gigs in his day.
Backstabbing for Beginners is a wasted opportunity. This could have been something more significant than a cheap knock-off of Homeland. There’s a relevant story to be told about bureaucratic corruption and its effect on the most vulnerable in developing nations. If anything, this has made me aware of a filmmaker I plan to steer clear of in the future.