Canadian Cinema’s Answer to The Social Network?

I just saw an advance screening of the Canadian film BlackBerry, hosted by the Rotman School of Management. To prepare for the film, I spent the day reading Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s 2015 book Losing the Signal: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of BlackBerry, from which the movie is loosely adapted.

My assessments of the book and film are based on a personal criterion, whether I would use them in the Narrative and Management course I am going to teach next academic year. As the title of the post suggests, I already use The Social Network. Would BlackBerry be a worthwhile counterpart or counter-narrative?

A Word about the Book

Losing the Signal is a work of organizational history, a genre with which I’m familiar, having written one about the implementation of bilingual air traffic control in Quebec in the Seventies and a second about the development of Highway 407, Ontario’s electronic toll road, in the Nineties.

The problem with reading an organizational history a few years after it was written and thus a few more years after the events occurred is, to put it bluntly, boredom. Organizational historians strive to be thorough and fair. As a result, their books are cluttered with events of little lasting significance, for example initiatives that didn’t pan out, and full of people in minor roles. Though the key protagonists in Losing the Signal, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, are fascinating and there are many dramatic events in the rise and fall of the BlackBerry device, I found much of the book to be a slog. The question it left me with was how director-writer Matt Johnson and co-writer Matthew Miller could adapt it to create a compelling film.

Watching a Train Wreck in Slo-Mo

It turns out that they succeeded, and BlackBerry is an enjoyable film for any audience. It uses the indie-film ethos which Globe and Mail critic Barry Hertz describes as “shot as if captured by hidden cameras – scenes are partially obscured by office furniture or caught with the intentionally unsteady hand of a cameraman who is in fear of being found out – the film has an air of DIY guerilla, you-are-here naturalism.” This is entirely appropriate to chronicling a technology startup and indeed is reminiscent of Jehane Noujaim’s cinema-verité 2001 film

BlackBerry provides a sharp, if not exaggerated, contrast between Lazaridis and Balsillie, a duo reviewer David Rooney describes as “a guileless brainiac and a cunning operator” and reviewer Steph Green, in bolder language, depicts as “a pushover with a severe shortage of charisma” and “a comic-book Machiavelli of rapacious unlikability.” The interaction between the two characters raises the question of how creative but often unfocused nerds can work with profit-seeking managers to make an innovation a commercial success and answers it by showing instances where this synergy occurs.

While I found BlackBerry’s upward arc fascinating, its downward spiral was engrossing, like watching a train wreck happening in slow motion. When Apple brings out the iPhone in 2007, Lazaridis is in complete denial, refusing to believe that it meets the market’s needs better than his product. The BlackBerry focused on email and telephone for corporate clients, but Lazaridis, Balsillie, and their colleagues at Research in Motion didn’t accept that the iPhone’s Internet capability, openness to music and thousands of apps, and touchscreen would appeal to a much larger consumer market.

Research in Motion’s downward spiral is accelerated by a decision to attract talent by offering back-dated stock options, a practice that financial regulators deem illegal, and by Balsillie’s diminished corporate focus while in pursuit of his dream of buying a US-based NHL team and moving it to Hamilton.

My Verdict

Yes, I would use BlackBerry in my Narrative and Management class for several reasons. The upward arc and downward spiral illustrate a variety of ideas about corporate strategy and management that are worth discussing. Paired with The Social Network, it provides fascinating contrasts between success and failure, cohesive and conflicted management teams, and American and Canadian styles of filmmaking.

In addition to the film, I would make some use of the book. Because the film so thoroughly exaggerates the characters of both Lazaridis and Balsillie, it is worth reading more realistic word-portraits of the actual individuals. I’m not interested in cataloguing every instance where the film took liberties with the historical record, however. The prologue of Losing the Signal presents both characters as adolescents and young adults before their meteoric careers at Research in Motion. This stage of their lives should be of great interest to students who are themselves young adults.

Despite Research in Motion’s troubles, Balsillie and Lazaridis became billionaires. The epilogue shows how they remained committed Canadians and used their wealth in social productive ways, Lazaridis by supporting research in physics and computing and Balsillie by working on public policy to support innovation and entrepreneurship. Thus the prologue and epilogue show us Lazaridis and Balsillie both before and after their careers at Research in Motion and deepen our understanding of their lives in full.

I’m looking forward to preparing to teach BlackBerry, which will involve watching the film at least twice, reading the reviews and paratexts that will appear after its official opening on May 12, and developing discussion questions. And the proof of the preparation – a process that I’ve found takes a weeks’ work – is the class itself.

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