Sunday December 3, 2017
In 2008, rookie journalist Jay Bahadur forms a half-baked plan to embed himself among the pirates of Somalia. He ultimately succeeds in providing the first close-up look into who these men are, how they live, and the forces that drive them.
I wouldn’t say the recent Tom Hanks thriller centered on the hijacking of important overseas cargo by Somalian pirates Captain Phillips is mandatory viewing before watching this parallel narrative that takes place during the same timeframe and more importantly, the heart of Somalia itself, but having perspective from both land and sea imbues viewers with more understanding and education of the country’s delicate, often misunderstood inner conflict.
There are pirates present in Bryan Buckley’s The Pirates of Somalia (also known for Oscar-nominated short Asad which also dealt with Somalia) but in the form of interviews conducted by aspiring Canadian journalist Jay Bahadur (his novel of the same also served as a basis for Buckley’s script) in exchange for a trendy drug.
Jay is a mixed bag of likable qualities and grating personality traits. Some of the negative ones are oddly by design and have nothing to do with Evan Peters’ (X-Men: Apocalypse) performance (which is completely fine although there are far too many scenes of him swearing loudly and entering fits of rage when certain things don’t go his way), coming across as amateurish and miscalculated direction.
The opening narration of the movie actually has Jay proclaiming that he finds films with narrators to be lazily constructed, which is quite cringe-inducing. Equally so is the scene with an unsympathetic flight attendant that Jay just has to point out is a dialogue exchange that actually happened in real life.
Despite that, the ambition and drive of Jay are admirable, as he struggles day-to-day living in his parents’ basement hoping to catch a big break (he applies to write for a variety of different publications, alas yielding no results).
It would be easy to write him off as annoying, especially considering he does have a bit of a superiority complex being under the impression that he deserves better due to his skill, but there’s a brief sequence where he carries out duties interviewing a store clerk about napkin pattern placement inside departments that he surprisingly doesn’t denounce as an assignment beneath him.
Actually, the young man is inquisitive with a desire to understand even the most mundane practices, also expressing a genuine interest in human psychology.
Still, it’s clear he is seeking more out of the journalistic profession (his passion is made evident with a theatrical poster for All the Presidents’ Men hanging up in his room), deciding to take a huge gamble and weasel his way into a meeting with the president of Somalia.
Reason being is that he is somewhat well-educated on the ongoing conflicts heating up, and knows that acquiring juicy material in a danger zone mainstream outlets refuse to let journalists travel to would make for a career-launching and financially lucrative novel. Not surprisingly, his outlook changes as he amasses experience in Somalia along with human interaction between its residents.
Among those names is his translator Abdi, with Barkhad Abdi wisely cast in the role; it’s top-notch acting watching him pull off a total reversal from his Captain Phillips role, serving as a guide to the land and friendly consultant. At the same time, it would be great to see his talent not be relegated to minor supporting roles and films centered on Somali pirates.
Additionally, The Pirates of Somalia has a culturally appropriate cast (even going as far as detailing each actor’s refugee status in the end credits) which certainly add to the authenticity just as much as the scorching hot atmosphere and impoverished locales.
Unfortunately, (in one of Jay’s many irritating narrations, he mentions that he hates sentences starting with the word ‘unfortunately’, but oh well, the film based on him contains flaws), Buckley’s script and direction frequently get sidetracked with fictional subplots and bizarre animated sequences that feel wildly out of place.
Jay strikes up a flirtatious friendship with a drug dealer currently in a relationship with the Somali pirate responsible for the widely covered Captain Phillips incident, which feels superfluous and even neglectful to the matter at hand.
He also confronts obstacles obtaining a book deal and recalls his love for a high-school crush. The film works best when Somalis are questioned and get the chance to talk about their land, the poetic and diplomatic love it once had, and complex explanations regarding their hostile behavior at sea.
The worthless and over-the-top cameo from Al Pacino as a retired and revered journalist also needs to be brought up, as the performance is just as head-scratching as the inclusion of cartoon dream sequences.
Thanks to a random chance encounter at a hospital (another fake and nonorganic subplot) Jay gets to meet his idol, who encourages him to ignore school and seize success through action. That’s fine, but the character is also portrayed as a weirdly perverted individual mentioning sex one too many times.
If this were real life, we would probably be looking into if any of his acquaintances were named Harvey Weinstein or Brett Ratner. Nonetheless, Al Pacino is having fun and giving the film a jolt of energy, but it’s all yet another tonal mistake.
There is quite a bit of flawed execution within The Pirates of Somalia, but its production values (it’s noteworthy that as Jay’s stay in Somalia extends, his hair and facial features go through drastic changes, reflecting his growing state of maturity) and humane approach to the story save it from being a total misfire. Bryan Buckley is aware that there is a lot of misinformation circulating the news regarding Somalia, making his full-length feature on the subject intriguingly educational alongside mildly entertaining.