You wouldn’t expect a movie called The Pirates of Somalia to begin with a shot of a snowplow doing its thing in the frost-blanketed Toronto suburbs. Director Bryan Buckley is counting on that, though. It’s the first clue that this will not be a typical, true story issue movie, even though it is exactly those things (Buckley adapted his screenplay from Jay Bahadur’s book of the same name). What makes it better and more impactful than those types of movies is that this harrowing tale of a Western reporter who risked his life continually for six months to live among the most notorious Somalian criminals is that it’s pretty funny.
Frustrated aspiring journalist Bahadur (Evan Peters), after hurting his back shoveling snow, happens to meet his journalistic idol, Seymour Tolbin (Al Pacino), at a doctor’s office. Tolbin advises the young man to forget the academic route (“Fuck Harvard” are his exact words) and forge his own path. So Bahadur essentially wills himself into a journalistic career by emailing the son of the Somalian president and flying to a very dangerous part of the world with no money and no support. There’s also a running gag about Bahadur being motivated by the ex-girlfriend who scorned him, a Social Network-type plot point that Buckley introduces only to giddily undercut.
Peters plays Bahadur as a charmingly overconfident dweeb and a bit of a romantic; 25 years ago, he would have been played by John Cusack. He’s a lovable blowhard who refers to himself as “a person of my intellectual capacity” but he’s also a true believer. He is steadfastly certain of the importance of journalism and its ability to change the world for the better. We need more characters like him.
Peters’ performance becomes increasingly unhinged the longer Bahadur stays in Somalia (and the longer he keeps chewing khat) but he was never exactly buttoned down to begin with. This is a guy who is told not to open the window to the room he’s staying in so as few locals as possible know there’s a Westerner around and then he goes and opens it his very first morning there and starts shooting video of the people walking by. Later, he publicly flirts with one of the wives of the most infamous pirate in Somalia. There’s a prevailing sense of misadventure that turns The Pirates of Somalia into a contemporary picaresque.
Though the narrative unfolds in a more or less conventional way, Buckley matches Bahadur’s impish flair with occasional flourishes like TV newscasters switching from standard reporting to (in Bahadur’s mind) a profane litany of reasons they’re not reporting directly from Somalia or a wistful bit in which Bahadur scrolls through the pictures of home on his phone in his tiny room and the images are projected on the mosquito net beneath which he lies.
I’ve managed to make it this far into the review without mentioning the actual Somali characters. Rest assured, the movie does not make the same mistake. The many Somali characters are played largely by actual Somalis–including Captain Phillips‘ Barkhad Abdi–all of whom have the year they became refugees listed alongside their names in the credits. The Pirates of Somalia directly criticizes movies that use Somalis as props or symbols rather than characters (Black Hawk Down gets called out by name more than once). This is a political movie not in the sense that its about politics–there’s surprisingly little of that, actually–but in the sense that its about a citizenry. Each character is individually shaded; even the pirate leaders differ from crew to crew. More importantly, it allows us to see the pirates the way so much of the population does, as men who nobly take up the defense of the country’s waters when the government is unable. One animated section depicts a pirate as a Robin Hood type. And yet the movie still has jokes, like the running one about how everyone assumes Bahadur is American and no one cares or thinks it matters when he points out that he’s Canadian. You wouldn’t expect a movie called The Pirates of Somalia to be this nuanced or this entertaining. You’d be wrong.