Life is like this sometimes: you wait ages for a movie to take corporate personhood and turn it into the protagonist of a bad film, then three come along at once. In this episode we examine three films that take corporate products and turn them into biopics – but from very different angles. We explore the industrial backgrounds of all three movies to explain why Air and Tetris are by the books capitalist propaganda, but Blackberry is subversive, and if anything anti-capitalist.
I had read things about all three of these films but I didn’t know they were all coming out at once. We’ve looked at the phenomenon of twin movies before, when two very similar films come out in the same year, but I don’t recall seeing three movies in a relatively obscure sub-genre coming out within a matter of months. Air and Tetris debuted at SXSW in March, just three days apart, while Blackberry premiered at the Berlin International Film festival four weeks earlier. All three have had a full release in the months since then.
My attention was drawn to this curious triplet by Half in the Bag, one of the movie review shows put out by Red Letter Media. They called them – quite accurately – ‘corporate product biopics’, i.e. tales of the creation of stuff that people buy.
We will take this trio of movies in order from worst to best, which is also the order they’re listed in the title of the episode. The ugly stepchild in this family is Air, directed by Ben Affleck and starring Matt Damon, Viola Davis, Chris Tucker and Ben Affleck. It was produced by Amazon Studios and was originally going to be a Prime-only release, but after positive test screenings they decided to give it a dual streaming and theatrical release. It has earned around $90 million at the box office, on a budget reported at $70-90 million.
This puts it in a weird place, because does this count as a profit? What revenue value do we put on its performance on Amazon Prime? And how did they manage to spend $90 million making a film that almost entirely takes place in one location – the Nike offices. I’m guessing the cast account for almost all of that, because otherwise I truly cannot see where they spent the money.
Bizarrely, Air has a 93% critic’s score and a 98% audience score on RottenTomatoes. I can only assume this is because it has solely been watched by people who like Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls, the documentary series The Last Dance, and possibly trainers. As such, any film that tells this story will appeal to them, and I’m firmly in the camp that a lot of reviewers are bought anyway.
My response was that Air is a thoroughly mediocre attempt to make a film like Moneyball, but without anywhere as interesting a story. In that story we have the general manager of a failing baseball team taking an unconventional approach, brings together a group of misfit players, and makes it work. The stakes are clear – Brad Pitt is trying to make the team better, he faces resistance from the old school scouts to the new, data-driven approach, the coach of the team doesn’t want to pick the players he signs, and so on.
In Air the stakes are whether the third-biggest running shoe manufacturer in the world’s biggest consumer market can sell more running shoes by Matt Damon signing Michael Jordan to endorse said running shoes. Seriously: who fucking cares? How on earth did this film make anyone feel anything? It’s literally a tale of a marketing department signing a sports star, and that’s it.
They try to dress this up by having disputes between Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who plays the Nike CEO, and between Matt Damon and Chris Tucker, who plays Howard White, Nike’s director of athlete relations. They avoided the period when White was being investigated by the FBI for industrial espionage, obviously, because he’s there to be a jive-talking black guy, a little blaxsploitation comic relief to a story that’s otherwise about white bourgeois people arguing over marketing strategy.
While they try to make Matt Damon’s character – Sonny Vaccaro – into a maverick, going-against-the-grain type like Billy Beane in Moneyball, this fails miserably. Damon is too middle of the road, too boring, has too soft a face to convincingly play someone standing up to the system. But it’s jobs for the boys, and now Affleck is considered a high level film director he can just give roles to his mates, regardless of whether they’re a good fit.
The first thing that annoyed me about Air is, sure enough, the opening of the film. There’s a montage setting the film in the mid-1980s, set to a period-appropriate song: Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing. They could have just put some text up on screen saying ‘1984’, and gone straight into the story, but evidently they felt the need to add some padding and try to establish tone immediately rather than relying on the script and the characters to do that.
The other thing that pissed me off about this is the song itself – not a bad song, but the title is deeply ironic. Nike produced (and produces) their shoes in sweatshops, paying their workers almost nothing, while selling them for jacked-up prices so they can give extra money to overpaid sportsmen. The whole thing is upside down socialism, making the already rich even richer while passing on the costs to producers and consumers making far less money.
Following this introductory montage we get an extra montage, seeing Matt Damon’s character travelling around the country watching college basketball, trying to spot the next generation of stars. He stops off at various casinos, and clearly has a bit of a gambling problem. This is also set to music, quite different music to the first montage. So they establish the tone with montage, then re-establish it with another montage with different music.
Why? We cannot blame this on bad screenwriting, we’re looking at one of the other horsemen of the film-making apocalypse: bad directing. This is entirely Affleck’s fault.
Finally, we see Damon driving back to Nike headquarters and some on screen text informs us that in the American shoe market they’re in third place, with a 17% share of sales. Not exactly the underdog overcoming the odds story they want it to be, especially when there are some nice drone shots of a gleaming corporate headquarters. Also not exactly a company in need of a revolutionary new marketing approach pioneered by Jason Bourne.
And yet, that’s exactly what the film serves up. Matt Damon spends the whole movie trying to sign Michael Jordan, even though it means spending the entire basketball budget on one player. They try to set this up as a risk, as though Damon’s life is on the line if this deal doesn’t work out. But since everyone watching this movie already knows that Michael Jordan is the most famous basketballer of all time and that the Air Jordan is perhaps the most identifiable basketball shoe of all time, so the deal did work out, there is no tension.
It doesn’t help that every time the story gets a little drama going, this is interrupted by Chris Rock’s jive talk and endless use of the first thirty seconds of famous songs from the 80s. If this sounds like a Spotify playlist, that’s because it is. Affleck compiled a massive playlist on Spotify, including hundreds of 1980s songs, then sent it to the music supervisor to pick out the most appropriate ones for the movie. In an interview she explained that there are 45 drops – moments music kicks in – using 23 songs, 18 pieces licensed from other soundtracks, and two commissioned pieces because they didn’t have a composer.
$90 million, and no composer. Instead they gave money to Bruce Springsteen for Born in the USA, because he obviously hasn’t made enough money from that song yet. And it’s an anti-war, anti-nationalism song written by Springsteen after reading the book of Born on the Fourth of July, which has been repurposed as a tubthumping patriotic anthem by people who only know the words to the chorus.
Jesus, this movie is dumb.
Damon gets nowhere with the agent, Michael is either going to go with Converse or Adidas, so he drives to Carolina and meets with the Jordan family – Mrs Jordan, Michael’s mother, in particular. This same story is told in an episode of The Last Dance, the documentary about Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. It was the promise of his own shoe, designed for Michael, with his name on it and with him getting a percentage of every sale, that closed the deal.
There’s a bunch of arguing and shouting to try to elevate this narrative of negotiating a shoe endorsement deal into a drama. Then there’s some low-octave strings while they develop the prototype of the Air Jordan, as though this is a thriller. We are subjected a load of talk about making the product individualistic, an extension or manifestation of Jordan himself. But this is where the film collapses into contradiction, because we hardly ever get to see Michael, or hear him, let alone see him play basketball. He is almost always shot with his back to the camera, in a typically Affleck film school manner. All of his movies have some version of this – a really obvious directing technique that gives reviewers something to praise because it’s easy to see and understand.
So, the African American at the heart of this story plays almost no role, his mother who was critical to the deal is only in half a dozen scenes, and the only other black guy in the movie jibbers incomprehensibly.
Meanwhile, a bunch of predominantly white people argue about exactly how much money and what rights to grant this highly talented African American, with the intention of exploiting his value for far more than they’re paying him. Then, the Jordans come to Nike headquarters for the pitch, and Damon gives a monologue.
What makes this interesting is that Donald Trump used this monologue in a campaign video, asking for money (presumably for his legal bills or possibly his 2024 presidential run). Affleck and Damon put out a statement saying they hadn’t authorised this, but the video is still up on Truth Social, the Trump organisation’s social media site.
Which leaves me wondering: in the fullness of time who will be the more famous and influential person – Donald Trump, or Michael Jordan? Not the question Ben Affleck wants us to ask, but certainly more perplexing than anything in the film he made.
The history of the Tetris movie is a little confusing – it was greenlit in 2016 with an $80 million budget, billed as an epic sci-fi thriller. A co-production between the US and China, it would feature both Chinese and Western actors and was intended as the first instalment in a trilogy.
Then, the project collapsed. I can only assume this is because of the joint US-China deal over film co-productions and the importing of American films into China, which expired in 2017 and has never been formally replaced. The US-China trade war during the Trump administration, and the ongoing noisy posturing during the Rapey Joe administration, have made these sorts of co-productions far less common. The Chinese partner on Top Gun: Maverick pulled out of the deal due to the pro-US messaging making it unlikely to pass the censors in China, and the film was never released in the country.
At the same time, another Tetris movie was in the works, with writer Noah Pink saying he heard the original story in 2015 and just wrote a script based on it. So, instead of some weird block-based sci-fi thriller like Tron, we ended up with a comedy thriller about the battle for the rights to the original Tetris game. It ended up being produced by Apple Studios and released via Apple’s streaming service, so budget and box office data isn’t available.
It is based on the real-life story of Henk Rogers, an Indonesian video game designer and entrepreneur. To play Henk, they cast Taron Egerton, leading to accusations of whitewashing. Again, this is the old boys network – the film is produced by Matthew Vaughn, who made the Kingsmen films that launched Egerton’s career. So, even though he is horribly ill suited to playing the Indonesian lead in a thriller film, Taron got the job.
Rather laughably, he said in an interview that the tone of the film would be like The Social Network. A film in which Divya Narendra is played by an actor in brownface because, as the director David Fincher put in on the commentary, he couldn’t find an immigrant who was good looking enough to play the role. But that’s not the funny part.
The funny part is that this film is nothing like The Social Network – it has a complete linear storyline, there’s no split loyalties between friends in a film that’s supposedly about this great technology for connecting people, so there’s no psychic irony built into the plot. Nor is there anyone as mockable as the Winklevoss twins or Mark Zuckerberg, let alone CIA Sean Parker.
So, imagine The Social Network but without any of the high drama or emotional depth or funny Sorkinese dialogue, and it’s about hating Russians rather than hating Mark Zuckerberg, and you’ll probably be able to picture the Tetris movie. It isn’t awful, but this screenplay is not going to win any awards and they really should have cast someone Indonesian, or at least South Asian, in the lead role. Especially since they show him with his Japanese wife and Japanese-Indonesian kids who do not in any way look mixed race (or like Taron Egerton), and there’s no explanation of why Henk Rogers married an Japanese woman when he looks white as fuck. Given that this is your emotional anchorpoint – Henk running around the world trying to make a deal for Tetris while his neglected wife gets pissed off with him – you could at least make it plausible. Instead, I was left asking ‘where did these two people meet and why did they get married?’.
As to the movie overall, I didn’t hate it but I didn’t especially enjoy it. It opens with Taron in a sales hall, trying to sell a video game version of Go, which again makes no sense given he’s a British guy playing an American guy playing an Indonesian guy. Why would he care about Go, a game almost exclusively played in Asia? Then he plays Tetris at another stall, falls in love with it and buys up the Japanese distribution rights.
We hear the story of Alexey Pajitnov, a computer scientist in Russia, inventing the game and developing it with friends at work, before it spread across the Soviet Union and became super-popular. A Hungarian named Robert Stein apparently obtained the rights to the game from the Soviet company ELORG and sold the rights on to Mirrorsoft, owned by media tycoon Robert Maxwell. They then sold the Japanese rights onto Henk. There is literally no explanation of how Henk learns this story – it literally cuts from him playing it in the sales hall to him talking to his bank manager and laying out the whole tale. Even though this sets up the whole plot, and is far more interesting to watch than to listen to via a Brit with a fake Yank accent playing an Indonesian, that’s how they chose to tell the backstory.
So, Henk strikes a deal with Nintendo to manufacture and distribute the game himself, for their home gaming console. He thinks he has also bought the rights to arcade machines – a cash business that returns revenue quickly. But then Kevin Maxwell – son of Robert and CEO of Mirrorsoft – phones up and tells him they’ve already sold Japanese arcade rights to Sega. Henk ends up being sent to Seattle by the Nintendo boss, where he is introduced to the prototype for the Gameboy. He convinces them to package the new product with Tetris, rather than Mario, which sets Henk off on a mission to obtain the handheld gaming rights.
It turns out that no one actually owns the rights to Tetris on handheld gaming consoles like the Gameboy, sparking off a three-way struggle between Henk and Nintendo, the Maxwells and Mirrorsoft, and Robert Stein. Meanwhile, the Soviet authorities are hassling Alexey, the creator of the game, about the royalties for the game he licensed to Stein, while Stein is hassling the Maxwells for those same royalties. The Maxwells, as has now become very clear, had serious money troubles at the time.
If it wasn’t for the goofy tone, the cartoonish 8-bit graphics that pop up on screen every time someone flies from one country to another, and the horrible miscasting of Taron Egerton, this could have been a very good movie. It wavers between being a globetrotting caper around the rights for one of the world’s most popular games and a dark, brooding depiction of the Soviet Union (aka ‘the Russians’). We see Henk go out to Moscow to try to negotiate the handheld rights for himself at the ELORG offices. The building is bugged and the whole situation being surveilled by the KGB, who for some bizarre reason have their own agenda regarding the rights to Tetris.
Thus, instead of a simple three-way battle for the game rights, we get a five-way battle between three Western parties and two Soviet parties. There’s a twist when it emerges that the contract ELORG and Alexey signed with Stein only covered computers – i.e. Macs and PCs, not gaming consoles, arcades or handhelds. There’s a busy third act that culminates in Rogers and Nintendo winning the battle, and at the end we see Henk getting Alexey and his family out of the Soviet Union and to America, where they found The Tetris Company.
In case you haven’t twigged it yet – this isn’t a film about Tetris, it’s a film about capitalism being the superior Cold War ideology. We see a variety of capitalists – Japanese, American, British, British guy playing an American guy who is actually Indonesian, and one Hungarian. The battle for the rights is simply a question of which capitalists will succeed – but ultimately, one or more of them will succeed. Meanwhile the Soviets are shown as miserable, depressed, corrupt and menacing. And very difficult to negotiate with because they’re apparently always fighting with each other, with one of the KGB guys trying to get his own piece of the pie, because even communist government officials deep down believe in capitalism and personal greed.
There are a string of articles on how accurate this movie is, with Alexey and Henk appearing at a panel following the screening at SXSW. Henk said, ‘They captured what happened to me over a year-and-a-half in two hours’ while Alexey said, ‘That was emotionally, intellectually and spiritually a very truthful movie.’
However, most of what happens in the Soviet Union happens without either Alexey or Henk being present, so they simply couldn’t have known what was going on behind the scenes during the arguments between different factions of the Soviet state. Indeed, the whole notion that there was a struggle within the Soviet state over the rights to Tetris is fabricated, at least according to a detailed timeline of events from Atari HQ.
My point being: why fabricate this additional complication? They’ve already got a three-way battle, they’ve already got the revelation that Stein’s contract with the Soviets does not actually cover gaming machines, only computers. Then there’s the Maxwells bidding on the rights without actually having the money, so it looks like they’re going to win but then they can’t close the deal. There’s more than enough in the second half of the story.
But this involves Russians, and in reality the Russians didn’t really do anything wrong besides taking the rights to the game off Alexey, declaring them state property – the exact same behaviour you find in the private tech industries in capitalist countries. So how do we make the Russians the villains, instead of the Maxwells? By turning the Maxwells into figures of fun and writing in bonus Russians who are evil, corrupt, and out for themselves. It’s almost as though you’re not allowed to make popular culture here in the free, capitalist West that depicts Russians as decent people, with the exception of those who happen to create video games that we like.
There’s even a scene where Henk and Alexey go to an illegal rave and a young woman gives a speech talking about Estonia rebelling, how change is coming, and how they all want freedom of speech and Coca Cola. Then they all start dancing to The Final Countdown, by Europe. Get it? The final countdown to the end of the Soviet Union and Russians finally embracing capitalism and becoming free European peoples? Because the girl talks about the end of the Soviet Union before it happens, making out it’s because ordinary citizens rose up, demanded freedom, and overthrew their oppressors and the career politicians of the central party?
Except that it was those selfsame career politicians of the central party that deliberately dismantled the Soviet Union after the citizens voted in a referendum to keep it. And then Russia did embrace capitalism, which arguably led to an even more authoritarian state than existed before.
But look, bleepy Tetris music on the soundtrack and a car chase on the way to the airport that never happened.
Also, Coca Cola had been available in the Soviet Union since 1979, and Pepsi decades earlier. At the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which the US boycotted following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Coca Cola did not join the boycott and was the official drink of the games. By 1986, before the events depicted in the film, Coca Cola was being manufactured inside the Soviet Union.
I don’t know if Coca Cola paid anything for this product placement in the Tetris movie, but it isn’t the product that matters so much as what it represents, or appears to represent in the minds of audiences who are unfamiliar with facts or reality. The message is simple – you cannot trust communists with consumer products, so in order for everyone to get everything they want – even addictive, unhealthy drinks and addictive, unhealthy games – everyone should be capitalist. And preferably white. Or at least, not Indonesian.
You may remember some years ago that we looked at Operation Avalanche – a mockumentary about the CIA infiltrating NASA and faking the moon landings. The film-makers even managed to fool NASA into allowing them onto real NASA properties, believing they were making a straight documentary. I felt that the third act of the film collapsed under the weight of its own cleverness, or possibly just descended into an absurd lark, but I was impressed by the premise and the daring nature of how it was made.
Well, the team behind Operation Avalanche are back, and they made Blackberry – a comedy drama about the rise and fall of the world’s first smartphone, for about $5 million. A limited theatrical release has seen it make back around half of that money, but I have a feeling it will prove a big success on streaming, and both critics and audiences have lapped it up. It has already been picked up by CBC television who are turning it into a three-part mini-series using footage and scenes that weren’t included in the theatrical version.
Unlike the other two movies, it was not produced and distributed by a big, corporate streaming service but by smaller companies, including the film-makers own studio, amusingly named Zapruder Films. It was also made on a smaller budget, without big name actors (with the exception of Michael Ironside, who hasn’t been in anything since Starship Troopers).
As a result, it is a far better film than Air or Tetris, and far less capitalistic. If anything, the rise and fall nature of the storyline has echoes of Scarface (the Brian de Palma version), which is very much about how capitalist obsession leads to self destruction. Put simply, Blackberry is the best film I’ve seen this year and if you haven’t seen it then you absolutely should.
It borrows from prior films about the tech industry – the opening is old footage of some guy in the 60s talking about technology and the future of communications, exactly the same as the opening of Steve Jobs. And the ending sees the CEO of the tech company alone, doing something mundane, while a song that sounds like The Beatles underscores the stillness. It’s actually Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks, because the town where the Blackberry company Research in Motion was based was Waterloo, in Canada. But unlike either of those movies, it is shot in the same way as The Thick of It and The Office, and has an anarchic, one step forward two steps back dynamic reminiscent of HBO’s Silicon Valley.
Before we get into the film and the story I do want to pause and say that this film is an object lesson in several things – most obviously screenwriting, because the script is nothing short of genius. And unlike Operation Avalanche, it is perfectly structured and paced. But also, in how to use music not just to situate a story in a specific time and generate tone, but also just to be really cool. There are only 11 songs, and some composed music that’s partly based on The Social Network original soundtrack, and they allow many of them to play out so you get to enjoy them, rather than slapping you in the face with the first thirty seconds shouting ‘remember this one?’ like a drunk DJ at a wedding party. Or like the musical supervisor on Air.
The story in Blackberry is based on the book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, but very loosely based. Most of the big events in the film did actually happen, but probably not in the way they are depicted. As Matt Johnson, the co-writer, producer and director of the film commented, they mostly just wanted to make something awesome, not something true. So that’s what they did.
The plot begins in 1996 with Mike Lazaridis, the somewhat awkward CEO of Research in Motion, and Doug Fregin, Mike’s best friend and co-founder of the company. They try to pitch their idea for an email-capable mobile phone to Jim Balsillie, who works at a manufacturing company. The pitch goes badly, but Jim gets fired shortly afterwards for being a two-faced prick who takes credit for other people’s work, so he approaches Mike and Doug about buying into their company.
All three are acted superbly – Mike by Jay Baruchel, who has appeared in a lot of things I’ve never seen, Jim by Glenn Howerton, best known for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Doug by Matt Johnson, the guy who wrote and directed the film. And they are the ideal trio for a dramatic comedy – Mike is a tech nerd, smart and capable but useless at business, Jim is a cold-blooded corporate sociopath and Doug is a stoner/slacker type who keeps the employees happy and is very likeable, keeps quoting lines from movies. It’s not so much an odd couple as an odd threesome.
Jim’s initial pitch to buy into the company includes him becoming CEO, so Doug and Mike turn him down. Then, they realise how much financial trouble they’re in, and how badly they’re running their company, so they decide to call him back. But first, they practice the negotiation to try to get the deal they want, with Doug playing the part of Jim.
What I adore about this scene, aside from it being very funny, is how they’ve taken the Dragon’s Den-style language and turned it inside out and upside down, showing how absurd this hyper-aggressive mode of capitalism really is. In many ways it’s a microcosm of the whole movie, because ultimately this is a story of capitalism failing, not succeeding.
Let me elaborate. Jim buys into the company, and then, realising how precarious their finances are, arranges a meeting to pitch the email-phone to Bell Atlantic, forcing Mike, Doug and the guys to patch together a very crude prototype overnight. This is successful, and the Blackberry is launched, skipping our story forward to 2003. By this time, Research in Motion has grown, they’ve moved to a proper headquarters, they’re coming up with encrypted free text messaging – everything seems to be going fine.
Of course, they hit a problem – the makers of Palm Pilot attempt a hostile takeover, wanting to blend their product with the Blackberry. Jim initially tells the CEO he will agree to the takeover, but to give him a few months to get their affairs in order. In reality, he executes a devilish scheme to boost RIM’s stock price, making a hostile takeover impossible.
This involves hiring top-end engineers from Microsoft and Google to help with the problem of there being a limit to how many phones they can put on the network at once. Bear in mind, this was the early 2000s, before fully internet-capable phones became available and there was a massive expansion of the mobile data network, thousands more towers and so on. The obstacle is that RIM don’t have much money, so Jim executes a series of stock frauds so he can offer the incoming engineers millions of dollars.
Meanwhile, he tells the sales team, who’ve hit the network limit and are just sitting around doing nothing, to start selling hundreds of thousands more phones. There’s a wonderful montage right in the middle of the film set to Moby’s Honey, where Jim is flying around meeting engineers and executing his masterplan. My favourite line in the film comes when he tells the sales team that they aren’t salesman anymore, they’re male models. They are to go out to country clubs, tennis clubs, anywhere the rich and famous are. He tells them to use the phone very publicly and loudly, get people thinking ‘who is this prick and how can I be more like him?’.
Honestly, I watched this film on my computer on my own but I still applauded this line. As much as I bitch about bad writing, this is a script that is as close to perfect as could be. Jim’s plan goes well, right up until they crash the network and thousands of phones go offline. So the new engineers decide to re-program the mobile data towers and set up a decentralised data-sharding system to overcome the limitations.
Remarkably, this actually happened. Not quite as it’s shown in the film, but still. This midpoint of the film also sees the introduction of Michael Ironside, the new COO of the company Charles Purdy, hired by Jim to run a tighter ship and keep the engineers on task. He pretty much plays the same part as he plays in Starship Troopers.
Doug falls out with Purdy, because he recognises that the film nights and the happy, informal office culture is key to the company and why people are motivated. There’s a wonderful moment set to MC Hammer’s This is What We Do (not the only Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reference in this film). Though the tower data problem is solved for now and the phones keep selling, there’s another nightmare on the horizon.
That is, the release of the first iPhone in 2007 – the phone that killed the Blackberry. While they had innovated the smartphone, the alphabetic keyboard on a phone, internet capability on a tiny, handheld device, the iPhone and its deal with AT&T changed the landscape. Instead of being about minimising data use, and selling customers minutes and texts, the new game was about maximising data use, building thousands of new mobile data towers, and selling customers data packages. Meanwhile, Blackberry added a touchpad – actually a very nice feature but customers went for the touchscreen of the iPhone.
In response, Doug leaves the company and sells all his shares, while Purdy recommends moving production to China in order to increase margins and thus the ability to compete with Apple. Mike has been utterly opposed to using cheap, low grade Chinese manufacturing up until this point, but gives in and accepts moving production of the new Blackberry Storm to China. The film ends with the Storms arriving in massive crates, but all have assembly issues leaving them with constant functionality problems. The movie closes out with captions explaining that the Storms were recalled, and it was the beginning of the end for Research in Motion. A company that once controlled 45% of the mobile phone market now has virtually 0%, with Blackberry phones no longer being manufactured.
Cultural Capitalism and Corporate Propaganda
All three of these films could be interpreted as examples of cultural capitalism – the corporate system using pop culture to promote itself. But I think we can draw some useful distinctions between these three stories.
Air is a clear example of corporate propaganda – it almost entirely takes place inside an already billion dollar corporation, but it portrays Nike as a victim or underdog fighting against the odds and succeeding. It is purely a tale of making a corporation into a sympathetic person we’re supposed to root for, who overcomes obstacles to land the biggest deal in basketball shoe history. The whole effort piggybacks on Michael Jordan’s genuinely exceptional talents – but his talents weren’t for making money (though he made a fortune, no doubt), they were for sporting greatness. Except that brief period when he took up baseball. As such, that has to be downplayed, we barely hear Mike speak a word, and it’s all about the shoe, the product, and the corporation behind it.
Again, this film got a 98% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Tetris is a bit different, in that our protagonist is actually a small time businessman who spots an opportunity to make it big. Lingering in the background is the struggle between Nintendo and Atari for control of the home games console market, but neither are portrayed as people we should sympathise with. Instead, it’s an ideological movie about how capitalism is so much better than communism that even the communists are secretly capitalists and yearn for the freedoms and rights granted by the benevolent god of Coca Cola. It is purer philosophically than the cynical corporate personhood of Air.
Blackberry, by contrast, is a story of capitalism failing. The first half documents the rise of RIM – though in reality it was already a successful company that had innovated wireless technologies and video production tools. But ultimately, the only one who made serious money was Doug, who sold his shares at the high point, became a billionaire and went off to pursue other things. Jim’s plot works in the short term to resist the hostile takeover, but it backfires horribly as events crinkle out. They would have been better off taking the deal, but the competitive aggression embodied by Jim (a typical Darwinian capitalist personality trait) forces him to take a different path.
Fundamentally, it isn’t a pro-capitalist story, but a story of capitalists failing, in part due to taking stupid risks in order to artificially inflate their stock price – the ultimate commodity of any corporation. Also, while the other films constantly ask you to like them, constantly try to make you enjoy them, Blackberry has a nervous energy that runs throughout it, like the disaster of the ending was inevitable. It isn’t the most comfortable film to watch despite being extremely funny. As Mike puts it, ‘good enough is the enemy of humanity’, but the entire capitalist economy runs on ‘good enough’ – good enough to sell to people, good enough to get away with it. No point going any further, making something any better, if we can sell this crap as it is.
Before I go I do want to point you to one other film that I saw recently that isn’t quite in the same mould – Corner Office. It stars Jon Hamm, and is based on a Scandinavian short story about a guy who goes to work for a company, and finds a secret room on his floor that everyone else either pretends doesn’t exist, or somehow cannot see. It’s surreal and strange-making and not a relaxing film, but it does a great job of heightening the tedium, office politics and downright alienating weirdness of company life, as well as being unique.
On Rotten Tomatoes it has a 31% critic score. Again, Air has 93%. When I checked the page after watching the film it had precisely no audience reviews and thus no audience score, so I wrote a quick review and gave it four out of five and since then others have joined in too, mostly giving it positive reviews. It’s up to a 54% audience score, and I expect that to rise as more people discover it.
See, market economics does work after all.