Computing wunderkind Mike Lazaridis and his ragtag team at Research In Motion conceive an ingenious idea - a cellular phone that possesses the infinite capabilities of a personal computer. The coders are stuck in a developmental rut until Lazaridis entrusts his company in the hands of cutthroat businessman Jim Balsillie. From there, Lazaridis and Balsillie reach meteoric highs and catastrophic lows in guiding the world's first smartphone in writer/director Matt Johnson's biopic BlackBerry.
Innovation is an ever-moving treadmill. One second, a piece of technology is an indelible part of our lives. The next, another creation captures the spotlight and we quickly discard what we once obsessed over. Now I don't want to spoil every detail about BlackBerry, although readers could probably guess by the absence of BlackBerry phones in the marketplace where this story is heading.
The path of BlackBerry may seem straightforward, but Johnson's film injects a lively pulse into the age-old parable. With BlackBerry, Johnson cultivates an exhilarating experience that infuses striking insights and technical verve into the well-worn biopic formula.
As someone who sifts through a murders row of painfully generic true story adaptations, I give Johnson significant praise for defining an alluring imprint on his material. His film skillfully leans into the energy of its late 90s/early 00s setting, utilizing retrograde footage and zeitgeist songs to capture a time and place when the world was on the brink of seismic changes. There is a palpable momentum throughout Johnson's direction; he proves himself as a master of balancing the euphoria and dread embedded within the BlackBerry story. His implementation of accomplished filmmaking techniques, like frenzied handheld camerawork and expressive framing choices, all serve as effective tools for capturing the roller coaster ride our characters embark on.
Like most films about business, BlackBerry evolves into a story about values. Lazaridis and his team of quirky coders are a makeshift family. When they are not operating like pirates on the frontier of unexplored computing power, the group basks in a shared camaraderie compromised of cheerful banter and festive movie nights. The characters represent an apt embodiment of 90s anti-conformity culture, stepping to the beat of their own drum by embracing creation over corporate cynicism.
That all changes when Balsillie comes into play. Storming his way into the office like a locomotive train hellbent on reaching its destination, Balsillie is the ultimate embodiment of corporate practices. He pays no mind to what the product is or how it can benefit the world, instead boasting a singular fixation on how to monetize it on his pathway toward becoming a social elite.
Johnson's film is at its best when depicting the war between these juxtaposing sensibilities. As BlackBerry evolves from an out-of-the-box concept into a multi-billion dollar product, the film adeptly grasps onto the erosion of values as the company forms into a soulless shadow of what it used to represent. Sure, this concept is not groundbreaking, and the film struggles at times to convey every nuance within its decade-plus timeline. However, Johnson's ability to capture the humanity buried within this transformation often lands with piercing results.
A spellbinding cast also elevates BlackBerry's strengths. Fans of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia have grown to love Glenn Howerton for his unhinged comedic portrayal of sociopath Dennis Reynolds. Here, Howerton offers a career-best performance stepping into the shoes of Jim Balsillie. The actor conjures a boiling rage that permeates into every scene, menacingly stomping around the office and throwing a flurry of insults at all who dare to challenge him. It would be easy for Balsillie's confrontational personality to come off as a half-baked caricature, yet Howerton always grasps the vulnerabilities motivating Balsillie's transformation into a monstrous figure. Likewise, comedic stalwart Jay Baruchel is excellent in evolving Mike Lazaridis from a modest computer nerd into a cutthroat business leader. Johnson also provides a warm performance as Mike's best friend that tries to hold the company's once-bright spirit together.
Following in the footsteps of accomplished tech-based biopics like Steve Jobs and The Social Network, BlackBerry explores a forgotten cultural footnote with fascinating results.
BlackBerry is now playing in theaters.