Review: "BlackBerry" is a stressful descent into business madness
A finger-on-the-pulse reckoning with an all-too-familiar kind of story
If you just look at the title or plot description, BlackBerry sounds like part of this weird new genre of “product biopics” (priopics?) that has cropped up this year, alongside Air, Tetris, and the upcoming Flamin’ Hot. In actuality, it’s a much more compelling and complicated film than those, not at all the celebratory or feel-good story of ingenuity winning the day – which certainly has its place, and which Air is a very sturdy example of – but a dark and provocative parable about the cutthroat, soul-crushing, ethics-demolishing incentives of our current tech-driven growth-at-all-costs late capitalist hellscape, using the real-life rise and fall of the BlackBerry cell phone brand to tell a story that’s achingly familiar across multiple industries: the Faustian bargain and gradual dismemberment of the soul that follows from turning a personal passion project into an international, publicly-traded mega-corporation.
And it all feels so terrifyingly real and immediate, because the real genre BlackBerry belongs to is the “2-hour cinematic heart attack” film; other entries include the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems, Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, or a whole host of pitch-black 70s dramas, the granddaddy of them all being Sidney Lumet’s Network; these are, essentially, action movies with words instead of guns, about people in high-powered situations pushing themselves and those around them to extremis. BlackBerry is an exemplary addition to the genre, brutally intense and profoundly stressful from start to finish, all anger and fear and multilateral distrust spewing in every direction as a goofy little group of tech nerds joins up with a toxic businessman and start auctioning off everything recognizably human about their operation in pursuit of profit. It’s terrifying, it’s gripping, and it’s quietly sickening. Director Matt Johnson hits a lot of the expected aesthetic hallmarks of films like these – embodied, handheld cinematography a la HBO’s Succession, a pounding electronic score like David Fincher’s The Social Network, and so on – but there’s an additional x-factor to what the movie is doing that I find hard to pinpoint. I had a knot in my stomach starting early on that only grew as the film continues through its three distinct acts. At the outset, that knot was the result of seeing this little band of misfits try to punch above their weight, the awkwardness and pressure of hawking a big idea to people with money felt in full force; but as the film goes on, that knot becomes one of disgust, as we see all principals and decency sacrificed on the altar of growth, and realize how widespread and applicable this story is. It’s a familiar narrative that has consumed so many parts of our economy – tech enterprises like BlackBerry, but also media and news outlets, and social networks, and gaming, and on and on and on – that such a life-cycle is no longer surprising, but wholly expected.
As a film, BlackBerry illustrates that life-cycle with uncommon narrative, tonal, and thematic clarity. Matt Johnson and Matthew Miller’s razor-sharp script is a big part of that – the distinct three-part structure allows for an uncommon degree of compressed focus on particular moments and conflicts while still showing a big sweep of time – but just as crucial are the pair of extraordinary performances at the film’s center. Glenn Howerton (Dennis from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) has found the movie part he was born to play here, as an angry, competitive executive whose rage and cruelty comes from a barely disguised sense of inadequacy. He’s genuinely capable, frequently the most competent person in the room, clearly the only one in the film’s first act capable of turning these tech ideas into money - and the fact that this is the kind of man our society has deemed most valuable, that his meanness and subterfuge is the kind of behavior that makes the most money and lives the most privileged life, is a damning indictment of our entire economic structure. Jay Baruchel is just as astonishing as the actual tech mind behind the BlackBerry, but he’s much quieter; this is, at the outset at least, a small and reserved performance that plays its cards close to the vest, underplaying where a lot of actors would likely go for showier, talkier signifiers of “genius” (think Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network). Baruchel keeps it all bottled up and internal, until the point you realize this man is not a genius, but a person embroiled in a constant state of calculation over how much of his soul he willing to sell to whatever Devil is in front of him to feel like he has a purpose. The answer, of course, is “all of it.” Baruchel has long been a great actor, but this is the best work he’s ever done on camera.
This is a great film, and a complete package: Riveting and entertaining, but also confrontational and thought provoking, a finger-on-the-pulse reckoning with a certain kind of story that’s become disturbingly endemic to Western economies and culture. It immediately takes a place among the best films about this era of tech and communication, and is a much more intense and interesting text than I think one would reasonably expect about the creation of a now-fossilized cell phone brand. This is the goods – it absolutely should not be missed.
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