The story of how an aspiring reporter with no journalism training became a leading authority on a subject few Western news outlets dared to cover, Bryan Buckley’s The Pirates of Somalia entertainingly adapts the nonfiction book of the same title by Jay Badahur. Though the world’s attention has moved on to other geopolitical hotspots and to domestic issues more terrifying than kidnappings off the Horn of Africa, this stranger-in-a-strange-land adventure has enough appeal to sustain its limited theatrical release, where the popularity of star Evan Peters (of American Horror Story) should help compensate for a seemingly miniscule promotional campaign.
Peters plays Badahur, a politically conscious Toronto resident who has the misfortune of graduating from college in 2007. Consigned by the Great Recession to his parents’ basement while he does marketing research for a napkin manufacturer, he sends out a stream of story pitches, all rejected, in hopes of breaking into magazine reporting.
A lively tale bent on deepening our understanding of its sensationalism-ready subject.
Then he meets an elderly writer whose work he admires, and gets pointed in the right direction. As Seymour Tolbin, Al Pacino functions a bit as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs did in Almost Famous — giving viewers a colorful performance while doling out quick life lessons to our naive hero. Tolbin encourages Badahur to “go somewhere crazy” if he wants to make his name, and gives him the number of a CBC producer who might help him get published. Upon hearing about pirate attacks in Somalia, a country he once wrote a research paper about, Badahur scrounges together some cash and heads to Africa, where he hopes to dig beneath the sensationalism and understand the socio-economic context of this piracy.
In Puntland, Somalia’s northeast region, the Canadian is received warmly by the country’s president and his journalist son, who both hope he’ll write a book disabusing the West of its preconceptions. (The film takes pains to note Somalia’s steps toward peaceful democratic operations.) They set him up with a translator and fixer, Abdi (Barkhad Abdi, almost as valuable here as in Captain Phillips and Eye in the Sky), who will prove a good friend as the months pass.
Badahur’s status as the only Westerner in these parts may be slightly overstated — another Canadian reporter was kidnapped before he arrived, though that was near far-off Mogadishu — but the film is enjoyable in its depiction of his precarious status. On one hand, he’s a quick study with bits of language and history; on the other, he doesn’t take local dangers as seriously as he should.
Badahur is especially foolhardy in trying to befriend a dealer of the drug khat who also happens to be a wife of the region’s biggest pirate. Sabrina Hassan Abdulle is sly and intelligent as Maryan, who surprises him with her knowledge of Hollywood movies.
We learn about piracy alongside Badahur, meeting two men who separately command teams of hundreds of nothing-to-lose pirate. They see themselves as “saviors of the sea,” who are simply collecting taxes the government is too weak to impose on foreigners. One says he was happy to be a lobster diver until foreign interests came in and destroyed his livelihood.
In the film’s somewhat simplified account, all of Badahur’s professional hopes boil down to an attempt to board a foreign ship while it is held by pirates, getting video footage of the hostages that he can sell to CBS. That attempt isn’t as exciting here as it might have been in a fictional adaptation, but it lets our hero’s story intersect slightly with that of the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, later recounted in Paul Greengrass‘ Captain Phillips. That high-profile event changed things in the region and seems, both on screen and off, to have launched Badahur into exactly the career he hoped to have.
Production company: Hungry Man Productions
Distributor: Echo Bridge
Cast: Evan Peters, Barkhad Abdi, Sabrina Hassan Abdulle, Mohamed Barre, Mohamed Abdikadir, Al Pacino, Melanie Griffith
Director-screenwriter: Bryan Buckley
Producers: Mino Jarjoura, Matt Lefebrve, Claude Dal Farra, Irfaan Fredericks
Executive producers: Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Hilary Davis, Stephen Kelliher, Peter Pastorelli, Jane Rosenthal, Michael S. Murphey, Robin Shenfield, Hank Perlman, Kevin Byrne, Bryan Buckley, Phil Crowe
Director of photography: Scott Henriksen
Production designer: David Skinner
Editor: Jay Nelson
Composers: Andrew Feltenstein, John Nau
Casting directors: Henry Russell Bergstein, Allison Estrin, Bonnie Lee Bouman
In English and Somali
Rated R, 117 minutes