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Backstabbing for Beginners is an American-set, Danish-directed film by Per Fly, who has had an established career in Denmark with films like The Bench, The Inheritance, and most recently, Monica Z. Backstabbing for Beginners is his US directorial debut, and tells the inspired-by-true-events story of the corruption within the United Nations Oil for Food programme.

We follow Michael, who lands his dream job at the United Nations (UN). He finds himself working at the centre of the Oil for Food programme, answering to Pasha, a seasoned diplomat with a considerable ego. After a UN official is killed in Iraq, Pasha needs a fresh face to present a report on the success of Oil for Food to the UN Security Council, and Michael is the perfect candidate. When Michael discovers that the programme is deeply corrupt, he also realises that he has been instrumental in supporting the bribes paid to Saddam Hussein. The only way out to expose it all, risking his own life, his mentor’s career, and the life of the woman he loves.

Backstabbing for Beginners felt like every American spy thriller I’ve seen. The plot is fairly cliché, following a conventional narrative set by all the spy films before it. The ending is also rather predictable, and I didn’t know anything about the true story going in. Our hero, Michael, is a bland, one-dimensional character that is hard to root for, and Ben Kingsley is a delight to watch, though he is clearly restricted by a bland script. It’s a shame that the lead female character, who had every chance of becoming an interesting, three-dimensional character central to the exposure of the corruption, instead becomes the primary love interest, and all of Michael’s decisions are considered with respect to what’s best for his crush, rather than the good of the world and so on.

Overall, Backstabbing for Beginners is by no means boring, and does have some rather intriguing moments. However, it feels more ‘made-for-TV’ than theatrical film, and judging from the release so far, that may not be too far off. Per Fly is definitely lost here as a director. While there is a decent attempt at making it hard to trust any of the central players, each scene plays out like “Political Movies 101” and does get rather boring after an hour. There is not much to talk about visually; each scene plays out in an office, which is just not stimulating. It would be interesting to see how the film is received when it is released in the US, but Nordic audiences will hardly take to it.

To find ways to watch the film online, click here. 

This review is in the March issue of Cinema Scandinavia. 

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