The Pitch: In 1996, a ragtag team of Canadian engineers had a great idea — a handheld box that would not just make phone calls, but also send email… But no idea how to run an actual company. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you think about it, they stumbled across a shark in a business suit named Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), who didn’t immediately see the potential in their nascent device, but once he did, pounced on the opportunity to bring it to market.
And so the tragic tale of BlackBerry goes, as Research in Motion co-founders Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Douglas Fregin (Matt Johnson, who also directs) get swept up in the success of the game-changing smartphone, Mike atte2mpting to develop a business edge as co-CEO with Jim, while Doug proves to be too much of a kid at heart to fit in with the increased demands of a successful tech company. Technology issues, a hostile takeover attempt, and Jim’s shadier business practices all threaten to take down the company, but are unsuccessful; however, there’s a guy named Steve Jobs in Cupertino who’s got a big new idea…
For Getting Things Done (TM): It’s hard to top The Social Network, when it comes to stories of technological brilliance and business malfeasance, if you’re not David Fincher and/or Aaron Sorkin. But BlackBerry holds up well as a blunt portrait of BlackBerry’s ascendance as well as its eventual decline, with cinematographer Jared Raab riffing on the documentary-esque filming approach of Succession to keep the action kinetic.
That’s an incredibly important thing to note, given that the action here is largely just dudes talking business deals or data packet delivery. In order to showcase just what made the BlackBerry device so revolutionary, Johnson and Matthew Miller’s script has to dig hard into the particulars of what transmitting information wirelessly meant in 1996 and beyond; here in the days of reliable LTE or 5G cellular service anywhere in the world, it’s a bit of a struggle to remember the days when networks would get overloaded regularly by too many users.
(Anyone who ever attended SXSW from 2008-2010 will probably remember watching AT&T subscribers with iPhones wandering around outside the Austin Convention Center, hoping for a signal despite the masses of other AT&T subscribers who surrounded them.)
To Johnson and Miller’s credit, they actually manage to explain the more technical aspects of the story in a way that, even if you don’t understand the particulars, does make it clear that Mike Lazaridis was ahead of his time in solving the biggest technical hurdles holding back digital messaging. It’s a big factor in the film’s power, because once we believe in Mike’s genius, his eventual descent into obsolescence becomes that much more tragic; a brilliant man whose greatest weakness is not being able to see the real problem right in front of him.
Clear As the Wig on His Head: Meanwhile, Howerton keeps his take on what makes Jim Balsillie Jim Balsillie relatively enigmatic, beyond the rage he doesn’t bother to suppress in front of his employees; the film never hangs a lantern on the co-CEO of a smartphone company constantly destroying physical phones in anger, and honestly maybe it should have. His ranting, not to mention his ruthless (and sometimes illegal) business practices at times feel over the top… until you remember that there are real people out there like this.
Yet there’s an aesthetic issue with BlackBerry that makes it hard to rave about it, one which afflicts other based-on-a-true-story projects released this spring — the wigs just aren’t working. It’s not the cognitive dissonance of actors like Baruchel and Howerton with different hairstyles that’s off-putting, but the basic manufacture of those wigs; it’s hard not to smell the bald cap glue coming off Howerton, or notice the too-precise line of Baruchel’s hairline. Yes, it’s a bit silly to point out the wig issue, but for this viewer at least it did prove distracting, and that’s the key with details like this; they may not be as important as making sure the dialogue’s all audible and the actors are in the frame, but when they’re not working, the audience notices.
The Verdict: One of the best moments of BlackBerry comes as a new executive, brought in to whip the company’s goof-around engineering team into shape, starts screaming at the engineers to grow up and be men — as he rants, the camera finds the one woman in the room, and her expression says everything that needs to be said.
The most important aspect of BlackBerry is the fact that this is not a hero’s journey for anyone involved; this is a story about what it means to be smart in some ways and dumb in others. Baruchel’s take on Mike Lazaridis is particularly haunting, as we watch him compromise his most deeply-held beliefs, shedding human connection as his ego gets bigger and bigger. As presented by the film, by the time the iPhone makes its debut, Mike is too caught up in his own mythology, and the seemingly unstoppable power of the BlackBerry, to recognize in time just how much the game has changed.
It’s not a subtle story, but revolutions, whether they be in business or technology, are rarely subtle. In the end, the biggest warning BlackBerry offers is to make sure you’re really seeing what’s going on around you. You might not even notice your world is ending, until it’s over.
Where to Watch: BlackBerry arrives in theaters on May 12th.