September 2023

High Pressure

Reality, BlackBerry

Miles David Moore


Two recent and excellent movies—Tina Satter's Reality, on Max, and Matt Johnson's BlackBerry, available for rent on Prime, Apple TV+ and other platforms—depict situations in which the protagonists find themselves in trouble with government investigators.  In Reality, the trouble is the whole story, taking place almost in real time, as FBI agents question National Security Agency contractor Reality Winner about her alleged leaking of a classified document.  In BlackBerry, the government trouble (this time with the Securities and Exchange Commission) comes toward the end, after more than a decade of high-pressure corporate manipulation at Research In Motion (RIM), manufacturer of the BlackBerry cellular telephone.

Reality—written by Satter and James Paul Dallas, based on Satter's play Is This A Room—begins on May 9, 2017 with a brief scene of Reality Winner (Sydney Sweeney), a translator of Farsi and Pashto at the NSA facility in Augusta, Ga., watching at her office a Fox News story about President Trump firing FBI Director James Comey.  The action switches to June 3, when FBI agents follow Winner home from the grocery and approach her outside her house.  From this point, the dialogue is taken verbatim from actual FBI tapes of Winner's interrogation.   Agents Justin Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Wallace Taylor (Marchant Davis) ask if they could ask her a few questions, and also if they may search her house. 

Winner reacts calmly to Garrick and Taylor's requests, although she is worried about the safety of her pet dog and cat.   The questioning begins outside; later, after agents finish searching the house and the dog and cat are secured, Garrick and Taylor move Winner into an empty room indoors.  The questioning at first is light, almost bantering; she talks about her service in the Air Force, her yoga and her Cross-Fit training, and the agents share stories about their military service and fitness regimens.  Slowly the questions become more pointed, and as they do, Winner's equanimity
fades, and the truth emerges.

That truth is appallingly sad.  Winner is no Edward Snowden, much less a Robert Hanssen.  She is a patriot whose chief desire is to deploy to Afghanistan where her expertise in Pashto can be used in her country's service.  Because she is a patriot, she felt she could not sit idly by and let Fox News tell lies about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election when she had clear evidence in front of her.  That is why she printed out a classified document and mailed it to The Intercept.

It is evident that Winner and her interrogators have much more in common than not.  In Winner's place, would they have done what she did?  We can never know, but they all serve the same government, and they are all motivated by love of country.  The sad revelation of Winner is that the system—especially when headed by dishonorable officials—finds them all expendable.  Satter finds an unforgettable visual way of underlining that point; when Winner, Garrick or Taylor touch on any classified issue, the soundtrack changes to electronic scribble, and their images are blanked

Was Reality Winner justified in leaking that document?  Reasonable people can disagree, but Satter leaves us in no doubt where she stands.  While Winner was just beginning a four-year sentence in prison, a final caption tells us, United States senators were quoting publicly from the document she mailed The Intercept.

There is no room for people to disagree reasonably about the events in BlackBerry. Indeed, as the screenplay by Matt Johnson and Matthew Miller demonstrates, reason had little to do with what happened to RIM and its executives toward the end.

BlackBerry begins in Ontario in 1996, when RIM co-founders Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Johnson) pitch their "PocketLink" cellular device to manufacturing executive Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton).  Lazaridis, a techno-nerd, and Fregin, a laid-back
hippie, are inept at selling the product, and the hard-charging Balsillie can't hide his annoyance.  But after Balsillie is fired for insubordination, he remembers intriguing details about the PocketLink and thinks he can make it successful.  He goes to Lazaridis and Fregin, offering cash in exchange for 50 percent of the company.  At first Lazaridis and Fregin are dubious, but after Balsillie exposes a plot by USRobotics to bankrupt RIM, they relent, give him a third of the company, and make him co-CEO with Lazaridis.

Rechristened the BlackBerry, RIM's product is revolutionary in its day, a combination telephone, pager, and messaging device.  It is so innovative that potential partners are difficult to persuade.  It doesn't help that Balsillie is completely out of sync with the RIM staff.  Balsillie is the sort who smashes pay phones in a fit of rage, whereas Lazaridis, Fregin and their pals regularly stop work to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark and other favorite movies.  At one point Balsillie forces Lazaridis and his team to work overnight to create a prototype to show Bell Atlantic executives in New York the next morning.  Balsillie hustles Lazaridis onto the plane, only to find out that Lazaridis forgot the prototype. 

No matter: by 2003, the BlackBerry is a roaring success, making Balsillie, Lazaridis and Fregin rich.  Soon, however, trouble comes in the form of Carl Yankowski (Cary Elwes), the arrogant CEO of Palm Pilot, who threatens a hostile takeover of BlackBerry.  To ward off Yankowski, Balsillie must sell millions of new units, but this exceeds the ability of existing networks to handle them.  Balsillie also hires new engineers and a new COO, the Logan Roy-like Charles Purdy (Michael Ironside), promising illegally backdated stock options.  Purdy remakes the BlackBerry workplace in his image, and also demands that future BlackBerries be built in China—something Lazaridis had previously resisted because of inferior workmanship.

A beaten-down Lazaridis agrees to all of this, to the horror of Fregin, who until that point had considered Lazaridis his best friend.  It is around this time that the SEC starts asking questions about those illegally backdated stock options, and that Steve Jobs unveils a little item called the iPhone... 

Besides being a thrilling movie about recent technological history, BlackBerry is a wise parable about the vanity of human ambition.  Lazaridis and Fregin are the smartest guys in the room, and Balsillie the world's greatest salesman—until they aren't.  It is painful, and edifying, to see Lazaridis and Balsillie in the film's final stretch, making promises to customers and to each other that they know they can't keep.  The end shows Lazaridis with giant crates of defective BlackBerries from China, trying to repair them one by one. Sic transit gloria.


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Miles David Moore is a retired Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications, the author of three books of poetry and Scene4's Film Critic. For more of his reviews and articles, check the Archives.

©2023 Miles David Moore
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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