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The Pirates of Somalia Review

The Pirates of Somalia is a 2017 drama about a rookie journalist in 2008 who forms a half-baked plan to embed himself among the pirates of Somalia.

One of the first things that trips up Bryan Buckley‘s latest biographical drama is its infuriating, self-referential narration, which kicks off a curiously ambitious movie that works hard to be a quirky-ish inspired-by-true story tale of a curiously ambitious character. It never quite feels real, purposefully trying to be a bit off-handed, like Matt Damon‘s The Informant, though not with the sardonic edge that film had. It has plenty of good performance and a good story but seems much more interested in the man than the mission, keeping us unsure how to feel.

Fresh fish Canadian journalist Jay Bahadur (Evan Peters) is floundering, spending his time doing market research on the location of facial tissue in local grocery stores. He’s looking for a big break, trying to find his place in the world, getting inspired by the turmoil and rise of Democracy in Somalia. Fortunately, he gets a break when he lands an opportunity to interview pirates in the conflicted Puntland region, edged on by his hero and mentor Seymour Tolbin (Al Pacino in a cameo). Once there, he is led around by Abdi (Barkhad Abdi), a local translator who puts him in contact with his subjects, Bahadur learning much about a land and culture most outside the region don’t know about. 

Aside from the sporadic narration, the film teeters on a thin tonal line, wanting to be amusing while its soundtrack and many startling visuals contest it at every turn. Bahadur is our eyes inside this secretive world and as such, is the proverbial fish out of water and is witness to much that is undeniably compelling, a lot of which might offer some background to other larger films, including Tom Hank‘s Captain Phillips among others that came to shine a light on the pirates who made headlines for many years. Strangely though, Buckley, adapting Bahadur’s own book, never really takes it seriously, with Bahadur too often a smarmy character who seems at times stuck in a would-be romantic comedy, pining over his ex-girlfriend with all the sensitivity of, well, a character in a romantic comedy before falling for a local woman, one of many wives of a nearby crimelord.

This is all layered over moments that take themselves very seriously, with a heavy, blockbuster score and people who demand attention and it rarely fits. We sit with Bahadur and Abdi in a remote location with a Somali pirate in a scene that feels like it should be powerfully insightful as he becomes the first Westerner to have such access, and yet it is derailed by Bahadur’s absolute incapacity and awareness of what’s he doing. That’s surely entirely the point of course, but the film can’t seem to figure out how to handle these moments, failing to give them any weight, trying to keep balance of the humor and the drama. It’s only one of many. It makes attempts to be clear it knows it’s a recreation of the events at the start, but outright abandons this in the second half, playing it straight.

Credit must be given to bringing us to these locations and there is a real sense of presence about the land and people. It generates a lot of interest and one can’t help but explore the great visuals that Buckley invites us into. However, there is hardly much footage of actual pirating, some of it shown as drug-induced animation with Notorious B.I.G. singing over the soundtrack. The movie ends up sort of like a misdirection, not really about the subject of the title but rather Bahadur’s journey, which is certainly worthy of a look, but misses opportunities to give some depth to the people he is meant to expose. As I said, there is some good acting here, with Abdi delivering another strong performance and in fact all the Somali actors really help keep this watchable. This is a film I really wanted to like, and wanted to learn from, but is unable to truly be as impactful as I’d hoped.

The Pirates of Somalia Review

Movie description: The Pirates of Somalia is a 2017 drama about a rookie journalist in 2008 who forms a half-baked plan to embed himself among the pirates of Somalia. 

Director(s): Bryan Buckley

Actor(s): Al Pacino, Evan Peters, Melanie Griffith, Barkhad Abdi

Genre: Biography, Drama

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