Through the piracy industry had been gaining force for some time in the 1990s after the outbreak of Somalia’s civil war, it wasn’t until the late aughts that the world was gripped by the news of small bands of pirates off the coast of the African nation seizing container ships and holding their crews hostage for exorbitant ransoms. Because these events, seemingly ripped from 19th-century headlines, so starkly dramatized the inequities of capitalist globalization, they’ve proved to be fertile source material for cinematic adaptation, inspiring Captain Phillips, A Hijacking, Fishing Without Nets, and now Bryan Buckley’s uneven biographical dramedy The Pirates of Somalia.
A well-intentioned attempt to provide some broader socio-political context to the nail-biting suspense of the hijackings depicted in its cinematic predecessors, Buckley’s film centers on wide-eyed Canadian journalist Jay Bahadur’s (Evan Peters) quixotic journey into Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region to interview the area’s most powerful pirates. As the film begins, Jay is a rudderless recent college grad dreaming of a career in journalism despite never having taken a single class on the subject—though surely that poster of All the President’s Men in his bedroom has to count for something. One day, Jay has a chance encounter with legendary newspaperman Seymour Tolbin (Al Pacino), who encourages him to forget about applying to journalism school and instead “go somewhere fucking crazy.” Jay wrote a term paper on Somalia once, even got a pretty good grade on it, so why not head out there and try to make a name for himself?
Writer-director Bryan Buckley’s film is ultimately more interested in the journalist than his story.
Through luck, persistence, recklessness, and the friendly guidance of his local translator, Abdi (Barkhad Abdi), Jay manages to penetrate deeper into the heart of the piracy industry than any Western journalist before him. As Jay stumbles through interviews with pirate leaders—gradually learning to ingratiate himself with these dangerous men via gifts of khat, a chewable narcotic plant—The Pirates of Somalia plays his cluelessness for fish-out-of-water laughs. Vacillating between light-hearted comedy and socially conscious realism, Buckley often seems unsure what tone he’s trying to strike. The generically dramatic score and sluggish editing are frequently in conflict with the looseness of performances, particularly Pacino’s outrageously gravel-throated turn, which feels beamed in from another film entirely.
As portrayed by Peters, Jay is a clumsy, self-pitying everyman whose sheer averageness prevents him from becoming some sort of “white savior” for poor, oppressed Somalians. Instead, Buckley attempts to use Jay as a lens through which to view the complexities of Somali society, showing that even within the ranks of the pirates, there’s broad diversity, from slick kingpins in expensive suits to benevolent Robin Hood types. The film makes sure to call attention to its own cultural sensitivity, having a character note that Black Hawk Down used no Somalis while highlighting the Somali-born people in its own cast and crew in the end credits. But the film hews too closely to Jay’s perspective to offer a truly sweeping or incisive portrait of Somali life. Rather than broadening out to drink in the details and characters of Somalia, it instead retreats into Jay’s narrative of personal growth and professional development. The result is a film ultimately more interested in the journalist than his story.