Here’s one trope I’ve had enough of: the story of the guy who told the big story. Just cut out the middleman. Tell me the big story.
Here’s a movie called The Pirates of Somalia, dealing with the fascinating (and largely under-reported) issue of pirates operating off the coast of the African nation. Most filmgoers probably only know of them through their much-publicized hostage takings and Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips.
Any insight into the Somalian pirates’ lives and day-to-day operations – a small but fascinating subplot of the Tom Hanks film that won co-star Barkhad Abdi an Oscar nomination – would be much appreciated.
The Pirates of Somalia, however, doesn’t tell their story. It tells the story of the budding Canadian journalist who travelled to Somalia to tell their story.
Still, The Pirates of Somalia is surprisingly engaging, thanks in large part to Evan Peters’ compelling lead performance as real-life journalist Jay Bahadur, who wrote the novel The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World, which I can only hope was more focused on its subject than this film version.
After some inspirational talk from fictional retired journalist Seymour Tolbin (Al Pacino, who is only in a few scenes but turns in some colorful work), Bahadur decides to fly to Somalia on what seems like a whim after the President’s son returns his contact.
There, we get fragments of a fascinating story and characters: in the film’s standout performance, Abdi portrays Bahadur’s translator and a former pirate himself, while Mohamed Barre and Mohamed Osmail Ibrahim play the dangerous – but human – pirates the journalist interviews.
But while the story of the Somali pirates is fascinating stuff, the vast majority of The Pirates of Somalia is instead focused on the story of Peters’ journalist. And despite an engaging turn by the lead actor, his character’s familiar story arc only detracts from what should be the primary focus of the film.
Peters has lit up TV screens in American Horror Story over the past decade, and he was the best thing about the past two X-Men movies, but he has yet to find that breakout film role; as good as he is The Pirates of Somalia, he’s still looking.
The best movies about journalists and journalism – like All the President’s Men and the recent Spielberg film The Post – might involve big stories like the Watergate Scandal and the Pentagon Papers. But they succeed because they rely on viewers’ pre-existing knowledge of the events, craft the plot around the characters, and the Big Story becomes a Big MacGuffin.
But as The Pirates of Somalia concludes with Bahadur pleading with US officials for more understanding and insight in the matters, we identify with the bureaucrats. Tell us the story and let us discover its importance; don’t tell us it’s important and ask us to discover the story.