Mark Reviews Movies

The Pirates of Somalia


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Bryan Buckley

Cast: Evan Peters, Barkhad Abdi, Sabrina Hassan, Melanie Griffith, Al Pacino, Armaan Haggio, Mohamed Barre, Mohamed Osmail Ibrahim, Mohamed Abdi Mohamed

MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, drug content, and brief strong violence)

Running Time: 1:56

Release Date: 12/8/17 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 7, 2017

It's 2008, and the young man is trapped in the suburbs. This isn't what he wants, and it's not what he expected his life to be. He wants to be a journalist. Instead, he's working for a marketing company, inspecting the placement of high-end paper napkins on the shelves of stores and asking questions to dead-eyed kids about why those napkins aren't placed in a more consumer-friendly location. If this keeps up, he's going to be like one of those dead-eyed kids sooner or later.

The guy lives in the basement of his parents' house, where his mom bought him a separate mailbox, to which the post office refuses to deliver his mail (His mom separates her son's mail from the rest and puts it in the mailbox herself). He's single and still pining over his ex-girlfriend from high school, although he tries to cover up his obsession with her distance from him with some nonsense about being obsessed with maps.

His friends go out drinking, but the time that he isn't working for the marketing firm is spent submitting pitches to various newspapers and magazines. Jay Bahadur (Evan Peters), the protagonist of The Pirates of Somalia, has come to know a rejection letter from the first sentence. The word "unfortunately" is a dead giveaway. His new plan is to refuse to write for any publication that uses that word in its rejection letters. Even that seems like a pipe dream. After all, you have to get an offer in order to reject it.

Jay wants to do something good with his writing, but again, it's 2008. Print journalism isn't what it used to be. It's a time of decay in the industry, and the essential crash of the global economy upon Jay's graduation from college certainly hasn't helped matters much.

This is Jay's life at the start of the film—the result of bad luck, bad timing, and a bad case of expectations exceeding reality. Somehow, he ends up in Somalia, becoming the first and only Western journalist to cover the sudden influx of piracy along the coastal waters of that country. This is either more bad luck for him or the first streak of good luck he has had in a long time.

There's always a little trepidation in looking at stories such as this one, in which a Westerner approaches the complex issues of the third world and those issues are seen through the outsider's eyes. We're never completely certain if the stories are sincerely told. How could someone like Jay, whose problems seem so minute compared to the people of Somalia, ever really comprehend the issues of this country? Writer/director Bryan Buckley's screenplay (based on the real Bahadur's book) tries to assure us of Jay's bona fides early on, by having a seasoned journalist (played by Al Pacino) praise the protagonist as a man who writes "with conscience." It's a hollow start, to say the least.

What we come to learn is that Jay is that man of conscience at a time when the Somali pirates are on the verge of being fully demonized by the international press. He may arrive in the country with big dreams of being the only Western journalist there, an overarching plan of writing a book and selling stories to news outlets around the world, and the aid of a newly formed, democratic government that's prepared to crack down on the pirates. That's the beginning. Once he's in the country, living in an apartment outside a village square and speaking to the local people with the aid of his translator Abdi (Barkhad Abdi), money becomes an essential commodity to get a locally grown drug in order to get the story. His calls to outlets become desperate pleas for this story to be told, and fame becomes a non-issue.

The film itself is one of surprising conscience, too (It extends to the end credits, where the actors' refugee status is listed alongside their characters' names). It doesn't see the pirates as either a threat or a harmless trend. There's real pain here, in fishing villages along the coast where international fishing ships have drained the waters of their formerly plentiful bounty.

There are two lines of thinking here, represented by two different pirates. Boyah (Mohamed Barre), who comes from one of those villages, sees the hijacking of foreign ships as a means of instituting a tax on the corporations that have taken the local people's livelihood. From his appearance, it's clear that he doesn't take much for himself, and he condemns any violence on these expeditions. Garaad (Mohamed Osmail Ibrahim) is quite the opposite. He dresses in high-priced clothes (or passable knock-offs) and runs his piracy operation like a cutthroat business venture.

This is the story Jay wants to tell—of disparate philosophies and practices, caused, indirectly, by over a century of colonization and, more directly, the recent byproducts of globalization. It's the story the film wants to tell, too, and it does so through dramatized interviews of Bahadur's interactions with the pirates and the government, Jay's growing sense of the complexity of the political and economic background of piracy, and the eventual rise of the pirates' actions into a global news story that ignores much of the vital context.

It begins as the comical story of Jay's desperation and gradually expands into a compassionate story of a nation's desperation. Is Jay the right central character for The Pirates of Somalia? In the big picture, he's probably not, but within the specific viewpoint of man learning that there is far more beyond himself, he is.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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