Based On A True Interpretation

How bothered should we be by the BlackBerry film fudging the truth? Honestly, I think we should embrace Jim Balsillie’s good nature about it.

By Ernie Smith

At a time when Apple is releasing another iPhone today, of course I wanna write about a dead phone.

I finally saw the BlackBerry movie last night, a film I had been quite excited about, and I gotta say that it lived up to all my expectations and then some.

It is clearly the work of a team who, when given the task of trying to tell the story of a groundbreaking company, chose to create something compelling, rather than 100 percent factual, much as The Social Network attempted to tell the story of a company whose story had become a popular myth essentially. The film, by director Matt Johnson, essentially does the same thing with a smartphone that was once at the center of public consciousness, only to disappear almost overnight.

Johnson’s M.O., with this film and the rest of his output, is taking the broad outlines of history and morphing them into whatever story he wishes to tell. It’s a trick he has used to good effect in the past, and with BlackBerry, it makes for a movie that punches well above its weight. (Don’t be surprised if it gets a couple of Oscar nods.) Research In Motion, at its height, had more than 10,000 employees—yet nothing even approaching that scale is ever shown. It is clearly aimed less at realism and more as farce. (Johnson, who plays cofounder Doug Fregin, basically is acting as an exaggerated, Doom-loving version of himself—Fregin is nothing like the ultra-nerd character Johnson plays.)

One of the things I was most curious about was the reaction of Jim Balsillie, the longtime co-CEO of Research in Motion, who is portrayed as a self-contained chaos machine by Glenn Howerton. I think that if I were portrayed as Balsillie was—a hothead who smashes payphones and occasionally bends the law to get his way—I might be a bit saltier about it.


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But Balsillie, whose unusual last name is played for laughs more than once, seems to understand that he’s the target of satire. Speaking to the Canadian Press earlier this year, he said that he acknowledged that the film was art first, reality second.

“They’re taking an element of truth, who I am, and they’re playing with it,” he told the outlet. “I’m aggressive. I’m competitive. I’m ambitious. I own that.”

Another reaction from the crowd, former RIM employee and current woodworking YouTuber Matthias Wandel, leaned heavily on the details, calling out the many things that the portrayal got wrong in the trailer. Johnson, who has said his portray of Fregin is partially based on Wandel, saw the video—and sent Wandel a copy of the full movie. After getting a chance to watch the full movie and do a DVD commentary, Wandel came around, pointing out that once he separated the real people from the creative work, he found something to admire. Plus, telling the real thing would have gotten as in the weeds as Jay Baruchel’s take on Mike Lazaridis often would get.

“If you actually wanted to cover the story of RIM or Blackberry true to life, that plot would be so convoluted—so many dead ends, so many little side notes, and whatnot—it wouldn’t fit a two-hour movie and yeah you just need to spend way more time at it,” Wandel said.

Over the years, one of the things I’ve heard echoed by old timers who worked for some of these companies back in the day is that it’s difficult to perfectly capture a certain experience—that the final result becomes morphed with the passage of time. News articles, the medium from which I tell things, offers one angle. The word Rashomon sometimes comes up.

To some degree, history is an interpretation. As someone who often dabbles in history from a journalistic perspective, I can respect that this interpretation is often challenging to get right even when you have the right narrators in the room. Even with photos and first-person views, we will never be able to paint the picture as effectively as someone in the room, in that moment. Narrators grow unreliable. Details grow hazy.

When creating a work of based-on-a-true-story fiction, as Matt Johnson does with BlackBerry, you have room to play with the details. It’s not the truth. But it is a compelling palette to paint with.

Link Cables

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I have been trying to get more into Linux of late, and have a pretty solid Debian install that I have going. One frustration, however, has been the lack of good graphical editors. Which is why it brought me joy to learn that Affinity’s products work very well with Wine. I followed this guide here and got them working perfectly.

Speaking of Linux, my pals at 404 Media are doing good work—I particularly appreciated this post talking about game preservation through Linux ports.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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