This year’s weirdest Hollywood trend is the product biopic, a film marketed off the name of a well-known consumer brand that tells the story behind it. Tetris is a goofy political thriller about sneaking the timeless puzzle game out of the Soviet Union. Air is a feel-good dramedy about how a Nike executive bet his career on signing rookie Michael Jordan. In June, Flamin’ Hot will celebrate the former Frito-Lay janitor who claims to have invented the spicy Cheeto. Amidst these more sensational films comes BlackBerry, an account of the unprecedented rise and calamitous fall of the revolutionary smartphone company. Compared to the crowd-pleasing Tetris or Air, BlackBerry plays a bit dour and dry, but the film is better for it. It’s not romantic or idealistic, but it is intriguing. Like the Margin Call to Air’s Big Short, BlackBerry is a cerebral business story about the competing pressures of technology, artistry, and capitalism, and how they bring out the best and the worst in each other.
BLACKBERRY ★★★ (3/4 stars)
The story begins in 1996, with engineers Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (director Matt Johnson) delivering a clumsy pitch for their new combination cell phone/email device to cutthroat executive Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton). Jim is uninterested in these two fumbling nerds, but after his arrogance gets him fired he decides to go all in with their fledgling think tank and whip it into a real business. Mike, Doug, and Jim become the brains, heart, and balls of the company, respectively. Mike is an uncompromising engineer who wants to put out the best product or nothing at all. Doug is Mike’s advocate, and the keeper of the company’s culture of joyful creation and experimentation. Jim is a corporate shark who takes no prisoners and makes crazy promises to investors that force Mike to either innovate or die. Mike and Jim develop a symbiosis, solving each others’ problems and then creating new problems for the other to solve, rapidly advancing the science and business of communications in the process. Even to my millennial socialist eyes, BlackBerry makes a compelling argument for the value of reckless executives who don’t care what’s possible, so long as they can sell it. Sure, that’s the recipe that gave us Theranos, but when paired with truly brilliant engineers, it can also produce something as game-changing as BlackBerry.
The odd man out is Doug, who on the surface does not appear to contribute anything apart from good vibes, terrible fashion sense, and constant pop culture references. Narratively, he functions as the film’s conscience, but this is undercut by his role as a comic foil. He’s pure of heart, but he’s also embarrassing, a glorified social coordinator whose fixation on movie nights and LAN parties impedes the company’s actual development. Doug believes that remaining a joyful, non-hierarchical research laboratory is integral to keeping talent happy and productive, but the story doesn’t bear that out. When a technical hurdle threatens to sink BlackBerry, it’s not the gang of happy tech bandits who find the solution in time, it’s the ringers that Jim lures over from bigger companies with (literally) criminally huge salaries. Intentionally or not, this makes BlackBerry a refutation of the “we’re all family here” bullshit that modern startups sell to their employees, offering parties and pool tables as a substitute for competitive wages.
Of course, because you are not currently reading this on your BlackBerry, you know how this story ends. The company that reshaped the telecommunications landscape is destroyed seemingly overnight by the advent of the iPhone, a development that catches Mike, Jim, and Doug totally off guard. If you’re looking for an easy answer as to how that happened, BlackBerry doesn’t have one for you. Like most rise and fall stories, it boils down to hubris, but the film’s third act depicts a death by a thousand cuts, casting no one party as wholly responsible. Jim’s relentless salesmanship created the smartphone market, but that same personal ambition distracts him from the coming doom. Mike’s perfectionism is incompatible with his new status as an executive. And it could be argued that the transformation of BlackBerry from Doug’s scrappy collective to Jim’s nuts and bolts corporation stifled creativity, leaving them totally unprepared for the next evolution of the technology they innovated.
Like the product at its heart, BlackBerry values function over form. It’s visually uninspiring, shot documentary style with the same sorts of shakes and punch zooms you’d see on Succession, but without the gorgeous or garish shooting locations. Most of the film’s flavor comes from its cast, particularly from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Glenn Howerton, who is practically unrecognizable as a bald, joyless Harvard man. There’s not a ton of star power in front of or behind the camera, which will probably doom it to obscurity while Ben Affleck’s Air sneaks onto Oscar shortlists. It is, however, the more thought-provoking of the two product biopics, and an educational journey through the early history of a technology and infrastructure that we now take for granted. There’s a delicious irony to that. This film about the people who made the smartphone revolution possible is bound to be viewed by tens of thousands of people — on the very device that defeated them.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.