Film Review: The Pirates of Somalia

A tedious real-life story about an aspiring journalist who traveled to Somalia to report on its headline-making pirates.
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Strutting about with sub-Scorsese-ish swagger, The Pirates of Somalia is a well-intentioned but tedious true-life story, all abrasive gestures and grating personality. Based on its subject’s nonfiction book, writer-director Bryan Buckley’s film recounts the audacious mission undertaken by Canadian Jay Bahadur (Evan Peters), who in 2008 sought to realize his reportorial dreams by venturing to Somalia to write a book—without a firm commitment from a publisher—about the pirates wreaking havoc off the African coast. It was a bold endeavor for the young, inexperienced Bahadur, but one that’s dramatized here in the flashiest and broadest manner imaginable, to the point that its progressive message is drowned in a sea of aesthetic gimmickry and strident performances.

It’s Peters who bears the brunt of the blame for that latter shortcoming, as he plays Bahadur as a two-dimensional cartoon prone to pratfalling (see: an early snow-shoveling accident), making bug-eyed expressions, and screaming whenever the opportunity arises. On the advice of his journalist idol Seymour Tolbin (an amusingly hammy Al Pacino), Bahadur decides to depart for a dangerous geopolitical hotspot where he might make his name—and settles on Somalia because he once wrote a college paper about the country’s peaceful elections. That hazardous trip is facilitated by money from his mom (Melanie Griffith) and e-mail correspondence with the son of the country’s president. And upon arriving, he finds himself in the capable hands of translator Abdi (Barkhad Abdi of Captain Phillips), who helps set up interviews with local bigwig pirates as well as teaches him about customs such as showing up to important sit-downs with gifts of khat (a local drug).

What ensues are sequences of Bahadur writing, stalking a pirate’s wife (Sabrina Hassan), and growing a scraggly beard from one scene to the next—a symptom of The Pirates of Somalia’s haphazard communication of the passage of time. Lurching forward with sloppy abandon, the film is at once frantic and yet torpid, its every scene full of “energy” but little in the way of meaningful action. That’s especially true with regards to its animated sequences, which recount events that—in the context of the plot—are rather trivial, and certainly warrant no such ornate treatment. Buckley constantly prizes eye-catching style over engaging substance, even as his script labors to make the point that Somalia is more than just a land of machine-gun-toting outlaws.

After a blitz of dreamy fantasy sequences, over-edited confrontations and narcissistic Bahadur narration, The Pirates of Somalia attempts to wrap up its all-over-the-place story with a plea to see Somalia as a country like “us when we were young.” It’s a compassionate sentiment, albeit one that rings hollow in the aftermath of so much dim satiric insanity, lowlighted by a running joke about Bahadur being Canadian (instead of American, as everyone assumes). Zaniness has rarely been this obnoxious.

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