'BlackBerry' taps into stress and hubris in story about creation of smartphone
The advance of technology in the 21st century can be staggering to think about. Innovative engineers have either created new inventions out of whole cloth or piggy-backed on existing knowledge to bring now-commonplace things like iPhones and streaming television into reality, ideas that were barely a blip on the radar even 20 years ago.
The new movie BlackBerry chronicles the rise and fall of the company behind the titular device, credited with being the world’s first smartphone. Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug (Matt Johnson) lead a ragtag Canadian tech company called Research in Motion, which is trying to get other companies interested in their newest product, a mobile device that combines the abilities of a phone, pager, and e-mail into one.
Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), a brash and uncompromising marketing executive, sees the potential of the product to disrupt the cell phone market, and bullies his way to leading the company. Mike, Doug, and the rest of the team find themselves hanging on for dear life as Jim makes a series of risky moves that make the BlackBerry ubiquitous in the early 2000s, but also puts the company on a path toward ruin.
Written and directed by Johnson, with help from co-writer Matthew Miller, the film has an unpolished look to it, as a lot of the imagery is grainy and the camera is constantly bouncing around, something that befits the low-rent feel of the company. The continuous movement also aids the story, as Jim’s tyrannical ways are a source of never-ending stress, especially for Mike, who’s tasked with fulfilling Jim’s often unreasonable demands.
In a way, the film is agnostic about whether the BlackBerry was a good product. It’s more concerned with how it became so popular, something it attributes mainly to Jim. The aggressiveness and hubris he’s shown to have has a way of convincing people to do things they probably shouldn’t do. He’s a loathsome character who’s also ultra-compelling, not least because of the all-in performance by Howerton.
Although there have been multiple other similar projects about tech companies like WeCrashed, The Dropout, and Super Pumped, what BlackBerry most strongly resembles is a dramatic version of the HBO comedy Silicon Valley. In each, intelligent-but-naïve engineers do their best to bring a great product to the world, only to be thwarted by egomaniacal leaders whose behavior threatens to bring down the company at all times.
The power of Howerton, previously best known for starring on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, cannot be understated, as he inhabits the toxicity of his role in every way. Even when he’s not on screen, the memory of his rants colors what the other characters do. Baruchel is slightly miscast, but manages to settle in okay. Johnson often steals the show as Doug, a goofy-but-earnest character.
The foreknowledge that the release of the iPhone decimated sales of the BlackBerry takes away from the end of the film a bit, but BlackBerry is still an interesting story of how a relatively-small company in Canada came to dominate the tech world for brief period of time.
BlackBerry opens in theaters on May 12.