Leave it to a Canadian to find humor in the horrors of the endless strife in perpetually poor Somalia.
But Jay Badahur was nothing if not an optimist when he, as aspiring journalist with no training and just “an obsession with Google Maps,” an “All the President’s Men” poster on the walls of his basement apartment in his parents’ Toronto house and a piece of advice from a retired war correspondent (Al Pacino, in mild “hoo-hah”).
Go where nobody else goes. Get a book going, and do stringer reporting work to support yourself.
“Nobody else” was going to Somalia in 2008. And since Badahur (Evan Peters of “American Horror Story,” Quicksilver in the “X-Men” franchise) “wrote a paper on it, once, in school, that’s where he convinces his parents (Melanie Griffith and Russell Posner) he must go meet “The Pirates of Somalia.”
The humor in Bryan Buckley’s film comes from Badahur’s haplessness. His previous job was reporting on supermarket product placement trends, and that didn’t even pay him enough to afford a decent voice recorder.
But Somalia has a small circle of power, and contacts with a Somali radio host set him up. The radio guy happens to be the president’s son.
With the aid of a quizzical guide and “fixer,” Badahur hopes to make contact with pirates and in the process, bring Somalia’s plight and potential to a Western world that lost interest sometime after “Blackhawk Down.”
Peters brings a gee whiz braggadocio to Badahur, upon arrival. He makes this “on the job training” transition fun to watch. The guy figures out the right questions to ask. Eventually.
But as his beard grows and he slowly learns to ropes — every local who agrees to meet him expects a gift of “khat,” the local hallucinogen — we see a growing desperation.
Badahur is on a budget, and can’t nail down a big interview, can’t get on board a hijacked ship to talk to hostages, can’t get anybody’s attention back home. Money and time are running out, and the khat is making him a little manic in the process.
The real delight here is Barkhad Abdi, the “I am captain now” pirate of “Captain Phillips.” He plays Abdi, the fixer, a local English speaker/translator whose fate is increasingly tied to the clumsy, exaggerating his status Canadian who doesn’t have a book deal or even an outlet willing to carry his stories about this former “nation of poets” (They used to say that about Vietnam, too, Jay boy.) whose waters have been fished out by industrial western and Asian trawling fleets, turning fishermen into pirates.
Abdi has a light way with a joke, and a hint of fear behind his eyes as he starts to realize this reckless kid is going to be unable to pay the bribes he’s already promised those who agree to meet him.
Writer-director Buckley, who transitioned from popular TV commercials to features (“The Bronze”), does only a passable job of of ratcheting up the tension of Badahur’s various dangerous encounters. The script’s flirtation with a “Last King of Scotland” romantic interest in one pirate warlord’s newest wife (the beguiling Sabrina Hassan) feels like fiction, even if it falls under the “true” part of this “inspired by a true story.”
The South African desert locations give us a nice flavor of the small Somali cities and towns where Badahur begins his quest.
It’s just that the picture’s tone and incidents don’t justify its two hour running time. There’s too much footage of the kid stuck in his sweaty, rented room, scoping out the pirate lord’s wife in the market, trying to figure out a way out of his dilemma.
But “The Pirates of Somalia” has a plucky –Dare I say it, “Canadian?” — optimism that shines through, even when things are at their direst and the clock is ticking on this kid’s crazy gamble that he can make a name for himself in a place no media organization, or media consumer, cared about before he arrived.
MPAA Rating: Unrated, with violence, substance abuse
Cast: Evan Peters, Barkhad Abdi, Al Pacino, Melanie Griffith, Russell Posner
Credits:Written and directed by Bryan Buckley, based on the book by Jay Badahur.
An SP Releasing release.
Running time: 1:56