“Default,” Simon Brand’s new social thriller, will get inevitable comparisons to “Captain Phillips”, the other Somali pirate movie. Yes, the film is about a hostage taking, and the battle of wills and wits between a pirate and a gritty white lead, but what sets it apart as an intriguing answer to the Tom Hanks vehicle is that it’s told almost entirely through ‘found footage.’
Opening with newsreel of a 16-year-old Somali boy on trial for a bloody ship takeover, the story revolves around a television film crew on a flight from The Seychelles to Nairobi. Before takeoff, the plane is commandeered by armed Somali pirates, seeking ransom. Amongst the imprisoned crew are producer Marcela (Katherine Moenning), her husband, an assistant, a cameraman, and grumpy veteran TV reporter, Frank Saltzman (Greg Callahan).
The hijackers for the most part are (disappointingly) hastily sketched out villains – adequately terrifying, violent and volatile. There’s the trigger-happy Blue Eyes (Mohamed Hakeemshady), and an impressionable teenager called Skinny, conflicted about his violent role from the moment the hijacking begins. At the heart of the group is calculated leader Atlas (David Oyelowo), the mastermind behind the operation.
Found-footage movies are, of course, tricky to execute well. A viewer must be coerced into accepting the idea that individuals in extreme, dangerous situations can stay enough in control to keep recording through it all, no matter what. In this case, the filmmakers navigate this problem by drawing on several convenient narrative elements.
One hijacker has been ordered to carry around a small hand-held camera – he’s recording a supposed training video. The TV crew’s cameraman, who had been filming behind-the-scenes footage of his colleagues prior to the attack, is threatened by Atlas: “continue filming, or you will be shot.” Gradually, it becomes clear that Atlas wants the entire, harrowing ordeal filmed not for a training video but for political and personal reasons – and it’s no coincidence that famous reporter Saltzman and his crew are the targets.
The movie is certainly a thriller before it is a drama – interactions between the hostages and the pirates are filmed frenetically, with the an underlying electric current that at any moment it could all go to hell.
But far more engaging are the tense moments that break up the main action – quiet, philosophical dialogue between Callahan and Oyelowo’s characters in a private cabin, away from the chaos elsewhere on the plane. It’s primarily through their discussions about good and bad, right and wrong, that the film explores its own moralism. Even as antagonist, Atlas is a character designed as a stark, blatant contrast to Somali stereotypes, asking the questions no one else will: who is truly to blame for the havoc they wreak? Who are the real monsters?
It all sounds good, but while the film introduces interesting ideas, many of its arguments about who or what “creates” piracy in Somalia don’t hold water, as the overall structure of the movie begins to buckle of the weight of its many ideas and the ambition of its mode of storytelling. As it comes to a close, a series of plot twists and contrivances undo much of went before. The stellar performance by Oyelowo is key, but undermined by a final twist and its eventual fallout which force the movie into passable thriller territory. “Default” should get credit for its ambition, but like so many other found-footage movies, it’s that very ambition that proves to be its biggest weakness.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.