As Silicon Valley Bank was melting down in March, Axios ran a piece about what it mildly termed to be the tech sector’s “perception problem.” The problem was that people seemed to be feeling a lot more Schadenfreude than sympathy for those in danger of losing their (Patagonia) shirts — the libertarian VCs bellowing for government intervention as soon as their own money is on the line, the egomaniacal moguls throwing tantrums on social media, the founders of start-ups that exist only to insert themselves as middlemen into every corner of commerce. The article quoted an unnamed comms specialist who suggested the issue was actually with the underinformed, and therefore unappreciative, masses. “We haven’t done a good job of telling the hero’s journey of people who are trying to make a difference in the earlier stages of tech,” they claimed, which was a bold thing to say about an industry that’s long been fond of describing standard pursuits of profit and power with the language of bettering the world.
There’s no amount of PR narrative that could make tech look as valiant as its most prominent figures would like, but it’s simply not true that good stories about tech entrepreneurs aren’t being told. It’s a uniquely odd time to be releasing movies about crusading executives, as we emerged from the pandemic with renewed skepticism about work, the wealthy, and the inequality-enforcing systems we keep getting assured are an immutable fact of life, but as we approach 2023’s midpoint, it’s undeniably one of the year’s cinematic trends. BlackBerry, a wry movie about how the small Canadian company Research in Motion briefly captured the global smartphone market, is now in theaters. It even stars a silver-wigged Jay Baruchel as the company’s co-founder, Mike Lazaridis, the film’s hero — though I’m sure that anonymous source wouldn’t like that he’s such a tragicomic one.
From gonzo director (and co-star) Matt Johnson, BlackBerry is the best of the contemporary bunch — The Social Network stripped of grandeur and made regional — though it’s not the starriest. That honor goes to Ben Affleck’s enjoyable Air, which happens to have just hit streaming and brings together Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker, Viola Davis, and Affleck himself in a dramatization of how Nike made its historic 1984 deal with Michael Jordan, with the result being the most influential sneaker line of all time. Before both films was Tetris, the Apple TV+ movie that premiered in March, a desperate attempt to turn the negotiations for licensing rights to the Soviet puzzle game into the stuff of a thriller, with Taron Egerton as upstart publisher Henk Rogers. Still to come next month is Eva Longoria’s directorial debut Flamin’ Hot, with Jesse Garcia as Richard Montañez, the PepsiCo VP who claimed he came up with the idea for Hot Cheetos when he was working in sanitation at a Frito-Lay plant.
There’s a gleefully uncinematic quality to these movies that goes beyond the admitted unsexiness of their premises. Air primarily takes place at Nike headquarters, in underlit conference rooms lined with vertical blinds and cubicle pits done up in sludgy earth tones, while BlackBerry starts off in a strip-mall office space that looks as much like an abandoned college classroom as its inhabitants look like overgrown undergrads. Tetris does them both better, or worse, by having its most important scenes take place in the grim warren-like halls of the brutalist ELORG building in Moscow. But its director, Jon S. Baird, tries to liven up his visuals with animated interstitials in the same way that Longoria attempts to make a narrative that mostly plays out on a factory floor more interesting with fantasy sequences and snappy editing, and neither of their movies benefits from what just ends up feeling like obfuscation. These aren’t stories of wild-eyed geniuses or once-in-a-lifetime inventors — they’re about company men who helped usher in products that clutter our memories, our closets, our kitchens. In Air, Jordan is played by Damian Delano Young but only heard from once and never shown from anywhere other than the back or side, because Air is not about a basketball legend — it’s about Sonny Vaccaro, played by Damon in a prosthetic gut and polo shirts, who saw in Jordan’s exceptional qualities a way to sell shoes.
It’s inevitable that these films end up doing different degrees of corporate mythmaking, given that they’re ultimately less about individuals than contributions to a company. Despite all of them ending with updates on the real people their cast members are playing, none of them maintain the pretense of accuracy. Affleck, who’s taken pains to make clear that Air isn’t Jordan’s story, told the basketball legend that what he was making was “going to have to be something of a fable, a parable, and inspiring story.” BlackBerry is loosely adapted from a 2015 book, but Johnson has also cited Werner Herzog’s “ecstatic truth” to describe the creative liberties his team took. Tetris invents everything from a KGB seductress posing as an interpreter to a climactic car chase, and yet it’s got nothing on Flamin’ Hot, which is based on assertions the L.A. Times did a convincing job of disproving in 2021. Fully freed from the shackles of fact, the film is the most mythlike of them all, a neoliberal Cinderella about how a Mexican American janitor ascends to the C-suite thanks to initiative, his insights into the Latino market, and a magnanimous CEO Roger Enrico (played by a reassuringly paternal Tony Shalhoub) who insists he wants to hear from every employee, despite the scoffing of besuited underlings. Toward the end of the movie, Garcia stops work on the plant floor and gets up on a machine like Sally Field in Norma Rae, but instead of rallying his fellow workers to unionize, he asks them to work for free in their spare time to help push the product he pitched to the community.
If these are fairy tales, they’re ones about the benevolent potential of capitalism, where labor issues never come up, company loyalty and hard work are rewarded, and a video game is implied to somehow have had a hand in accelerating the end of the USSR. The corniest aspect of Air, an otherwise satisfying addition to the dadcore canon, is the golden sheen it gives to the deal Jordan (or rather, his mother) demands for a percentage of the revenue from each pair of sneakers sold, a revolution in athlete endorsements that the movie presents as its big moment to be about something more than company machinations. Who’s making those shoes, where, and in what conditions never merits a thought. Montañez’s motivations in Flamin’ Hot are depicted as just as rose-colored as the spicy slurry he pioneers — all he wants is to boost sales to stop his local plant from being closed down and jobs being cut, never demanding a reward or recognition for his game-changing contributions, just grateful to be given an opportunity. The recipe he and his wife come up with is offered up as a coup of representation, a way to show “that we matter,” as Richard puts it, and have a right to be targeted for sale. It’s a sentiment that echoes Sonny’s big pitch in the finale of Air, in which he presents the Air Jordan as a way for regular people like him, and like us, to touch greatness by way of our wallets. It’s a privilege to be marketed to.
The audience, which is to say the consumer, is the unacknowledged additional character in all of these films, which proffer chummy reminiscences that also play like complicity — You remember this thing, right? Didn’t you buy it? More essential than the products themselves in each narrative is the successful selling of those products, which is why Tetris spends so little time dwelling on the origins and appeal of the actual game its multinational ensemble of characters are so frantic to acquire. The game has already been written by programmer Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov) when the movie begins, and the dramatic stakes are instead about whether Nintendo will be able to package it with its own new product, the Game Boy. These movies enshrine marketers, and what makes BlackBerry the finest of them is that it reaches that heady moment of triumph, and then it keeps going, to the time that market moves on to whatever’s next.
Baruchel and Johnson play the hapless founders of Research in Motion, two friends who have an idea — a device that would allow you to access email on the go — and no clue how to operate a business. Not long into the film, Glenn Howerton blows onto the scene as Jim Balsillie, a veteran executive who saves the nascent company from financial disaster while leveraging himself into a leadership position. Howerton, who shaved his head for the role, gives a spectacular performance hovering right on the line of parody, like a north-of-the-border take on Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate. He’s the embodiment of marketing as a Faustian bargain, but he’s also the reason the BlackBerry becomes a hit, an experience that’s portrayed not as “making it” but as akin to hitching a ride on a rampaging animal. BlackBerry is about what happens when the world turns its eyes to Ontario, Canada, an experience only slightly less terrifying than when it decides to start looking to Cupertino, California, instead. The market isn’t conquered, only briefly captured, and if the world is changed as an incidental outcome, it’s not necessarily for the better. That may not be a hero’s journey, but it sure is a good story.