‘BlackBerry’ review: 90s nostalgia yields little cinematic juice in what feels like mid-TV at best | Berlinale
BlackBerry, the follow-up to his 2016 docu-fiction Operation Avalanche, sees actor-director Matt Johnson put inventors, investors, and the internet to the test in a nostalgia-fueled biopic of the iconic smartphone. A biography of an object, you ask? Yes, since this is not Joshua Michael Stern’s Jobs (2013) bringing us closer to the enigma of Steve Jobs, nor Elizabeth Meriwether’s beguiling series The Dropout dedicating itself to how Elizabeth Holmes succeeded and failed. BlackBerry has lead characters, but it isn’t their story, really. The film takes the acclaimed book “Losing the Signal” by journalists Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff as its starting point to a stylised recap of what brought the titular company from rise to demise.
We start with the inseparable duo Mike Lazaridis (How to Train Your Dragon’s Jay Baruchel) and Doug (played by Johnson himself to the point of caricature) in 1996 as they pitch their “PocketLink” to businessman-shark Jim Balsillie (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Glenn Howerton). They get turned down and have to face potential bankruptcy after being dragged into a misfire-deal with US Robotics. All the later developments hinge on Mike’s emancipation out of the comfortable arrangement in Research In Motion (RIM)’s office, installed and perpetuated by Doug, his fellow co-founder. The work in RIM is flexible, demanding, but often too loose, as Doug prefers to orchestrate movie nights (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles amongst others) and DOOM playathons.
Lols and banter abound, and the only way out of the deep is whip these tech geniuses into working for billions of profit, and so, discipline becomes the film’s main character. Mike hires Jim as his co-CEO, destabilizing the relationship with Doug and the originary version of the company. From then on, BlackBerry effectively triangulates its three leads in the service of a success narrative true to the book it’s based on. Baruchel, Howerton, and Johnson have enough chemistry to hold it all together: the film gets male relationships best when framing the main three as a couple (Mike and Doug) and a new addition (Jim) here to break them up.
Not that there’s anything bad about a tech themed rags to riches plot, but Johnson’s latest feels stiff even if it banks heavily on 90s nostalgia—video aesthetic, glitching images, iconic soundtrack and in-film references—a rather predictable move. There is some undeniable pleasure in observing high-strung individuals battle over billions of dollars worth of revolutionary inventions and the origin of smartphones and mobile networks traced step by step. That said, the film revisits a much more ‘cleaner’ state of telecommunications before app personalization and targeted behavior and how much bigger the world felt all of a sudden. In this regard, nostalgia hits the spot. But if we peel back that cheap excitement—cheap only because it dovetails the subject matter itself—there is little meat to the bone left.
Even cinematographer Jared Raab’s chaotic “elevated-TV” visual style (think Succession) with smudges and blurry bits kept for the sake of authenticity, cannot really make a cinematic object out of BlackBerry. It ends up being a familiar story with some very exciting details, all too reliant on the audience rooting for a rather stereotypical “tech-guy” evolution (think Silicon Valley). Based on these references (throw in The Office as well), it may have been more suitable to see Johnson make it into a TV series instead. More and prolonged gratification, instead of inflating the bad communicators versus big money clash to fit the bill of a cinematic experience. After all, anger management issues, pitching anxiety, and the idea of building a prototype of something huge overnight always make for good drama.
This review is from the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival. IFC Films will release BlackBerry in the U.S.
Photo courtesy of Budgie Films Inc.