How BlackBerry Escapes Depicting Tech Founders as Untouchable Gods
Turns out treating tech founder protagonists like normal, corruptible, compromising people, makes for a better film.
The term “reality distortion field” used to be inseparable from Steve Jobs.
The Apple co-founder and longtime CEO’s combination of charisma, taste, menace, and knack for marketing was said to have such a sway over employees and fans of Apple’s products that he could make the impossible happen. Difficult deadlines were cleared, improbable product concepts were birthed, and facts, if deemed unnecessary, were thrown out the window.
In director Danny Boyle’s decidedly impressionistic 2015 portrait Steve Jobs, the distortion field is practically made visible as visual projections on the floors and walls in key scenes during the launch of the MacIntosh and the NeXT Computer. The film is practically enraptured with the space Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) takes up and how Apple, its products, and key figures seemed to orbit around his ego and cruelty. It’s a familiar feeling, if not an entirely realistic one.
In the myth of the “tech founder,” Hollywood has found its favorite protagonists. Archvillains, tragic heroes, and the people in between. Can you tell an interesting story while making your larger-than-life characters feel human, like the kind of people who might actually sit in front of a keyboard or solder a circuit board? If we look at the work up until now, the answer is mostly no. Films like Steve Jobs, The Social Network, and even early projects like The Pirates of Silicon Valley, regardless of how committed they are to the truth, default to putting their protagonists on a pedestal. The experience can be engaging and even feel like the truth, but it's off.
BlackBerry, directed by Matt Johnson (Operation Avalanche, The Dirties) and releasing on May 12 ends up feeling like a refreshing alternative. The film has less exciting subject matter. The BlackBerry was the first mainstream smartphone, but it will also be remembered as a businessman’s best friend, not something everyone from a toddler to your grandma could use. And yet Johnson finds a lot of drama and humor presenting BlackBerry’s heroes as normal, corruptible people.
It’s a different approach, and to find out why it works and how far we’ve come in pop culture’s understanding of the tech industry, Inverse spoke to Johnson about the film and tried to trace Hollywood’s love affair with “visionaries” from the past until now.
Pirates, Gods, Dorks
Pirates of Silicon Valley is a TV movie from 1999, but it avoids the stigma the genre can occasionally imply by getting several facts right about the competition between Apple and Microsoft in the early days of Silicon Valley. First and most important — much of what we like about Windows and macOS was stolen. Maybe not legally, but effectively; the graphical user interfaces that have come to define the 21st century were built on work by researchers at Xerox Palo Research Center. The movie gets by on shallow characterizations of Bill Gates (Anthony Michael Hall) as a ruthless, pragmatist nerd and Steve Jobs (Noah Wyle) as a free-spirited cult leader with a flare for the authoritarian, but it keys into a critical and seemingly accurate idea that part of what made these famous leaders impactful was that they knew they were doing something important (changing the way people interact with technology), even if they would eventually have to sell out to make it happen.
The Social Network does not hold Mark Zuckerberg in such high regard. What’s fascinating about David Fincher’s 2013 film and Aaron Sorkin’s script behind it is how petty it thinks the origins of Facebook actually are. Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg is casually mean, sometimes plainly so, and the film makes quick work of undressing what actually happened when Zuckerberg made the social network of the moment. In one Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross-scored montage, the stakes are laid plain: Facebook is the young person’s modern social world made digital; the parties, romantic jockeying, and toxic masculinity flattened into a two-dimensional web page.
Facebook would become so much more — an advertising platform and political influence most importantly — but Sorkin suggests, humorously (and darkly), that it might all exist because one boy couldn’t get over the fact he was dumped by a girl. The simplest of personal hang-ups projected on the largest canvas possible (the world), thanks to the impossible scale of the internet and the tech industry’s thirst for growth.
Steve Jobs takes liberties with its subject's story, too. Besides its product launch structure, Steve Jobs is most concerned with the largest blemish on the CEO’s life, his refusal to acknowledge his daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs. The film, despite the elegiac tone imparted by being released only a few years after Jobs’ death, doesn’t paint a flattering picture. Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s flaunting of facts drew ire from Jobs’ family and friends for portraying the man in a bad light. Something that might not have been as much of an issue without the pedestal the film (and history) have placed him on.
What’s refreshing about BlackBerry, Matt Johnson’s new film about the rise and fall of RIM (Research in Motion), is how normal its Canadian protagonists are. Johnson’s documentary-ish camera grounds everything.
“Jared [Raab] (BlackBerry’s cinematographer) and I are always trying to make our movies seem as though they were found or discovered and not placed,” Johnson explained to me over Zoom. To Johnson, it's all about the feeling like you’re participating. Capturing “The ‘Oh, wow, I can't believe this is happening,’ feeling,” Johnson says.
Mike Laziridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin’s (Johnson) initial pitch for the “PocketLink,” a pocket email terminal with a physical keyboard, is kind of disastrous, even if we know they’re fundamentally being misunderstood. Baruchel plays Laziridis as reserved, someone who’s better at making things than explaining them, but with a hint of darkness and frustration underneath. When I asked about Baruchel’s performance, Johnson put it simply, “He has something boiling in him.” As Fregin, Johnson gets to play comic relief but also the heart of the film. Doug is, in many ways, Laziridis’ speaker, but he’s also what’s lost once RIM is a success.
“He stood for something that had no value, and that thing was the camaraderie and fraternity of being young and having a vision,” Johnson says. “Not necessarily connecting that vision to the commercial marketplace.”
Jim Balsillie (Glen Howerton) is an asshole who eventually helps them realize that vision, but BlackBerry doesn’t make it seem like he invented the “sell phones and figure out how to make them later” move. He just happened to be the one that taught it to Laziridis. And he really does seem to care.
“Those intangibles that take place in friendships or companies... are way more important than people realize.”
- The film is focused on the small compromises that lead to bigger ones. Laziridis starts RIM with his friends in the film but ends it as their boss, putting a middle manager between his vision and their results and ranting about putting “a keyboard, on a screen, on a keyboard,” the fatal recipe that would produce the BlackBerry Storm, and arguably the start of the company’s downfall.
“Those intangibles that take place in friendships or companies or whatever actually are way more important than people realize,” Johnson says. “I think that [Mike Laziridis] winds up losing not only his sense of self, but he completely loses his way and starts doing crazy things towards the end of the film, the more he alienates his best friend.”
BlackBerry doesn’t tell the real-life RIM story one-for-one, but there is a true story you could find in it and many of the other startups that became big successes in the last few decades. It treats its heroes as standard, maybe even boring, but finds something universal in the experience of making something at scale.
Dismantling the Pedestal
Hollywood has been enamored with the myth of the “tech founder” for years but hasn’t, until recently, reckoned with who those people actually are and what they’ve done. Steve Jobs tries to have its cake and eat it too. Jobs is a Great Man but also a Flawed One. “I’m poorly made,” as movie Jobs so memorably and tragically, intones in the film’s finale.
BlackBerry skips that problem entirely by largely backgrounding the disruption smartphones brought to the world of business and then, eventually, everything else.
The film industry might be fundamentally incapable of producing a purely critical movie about the impact technology and the people who make it have on our lives. We want to be sympathetic to the heroes of our stories, and maybe we even need to. But by treating them like normal people like BlackBerry does, we can still find some truth, a lesson to impart that could be as meaningful as a computer or website that changes the world.