I vividly remember the day back in January 2007 when Steve Jobs first announced the iPhone. I wasn’t initially an Apple fanatic. I even vaguely ridiculed the iPod as too expensive and pointless when it first came out. Boy, was I wrong. I would soon salivate over the video iPod and relish the opportunity to watch episodes of The Office on that tiny screen. When Jobs revealed the iPhone, it to me like experiencing Christmas morning in orgasmic waves of joy. I stood in line for hours at Raleigh’s Crabtree Valley Mall to proudly (insanely?) plop down cash for that beautiful piece of state-of-the-art electronics. This was, of course, after wrecking my car’s front bumper when I parked at the mall and hit the concrete wall in front of me head-on, too excited to bother breaking.
I also remember the first time I saw David Fincher’s unequivocal masterpiece The Social Network. To me, Fincher made a dramatic film that thrilled as much as any action film ever could. Not only was the film about the making of Facebook, it was also about friendship and about a damaged boy. A boy who would forever change the way we interact with other humans while being unable to interact with humans himself. To me, Fincher’s film is a modern day Citizen Kane, and every re-watch brings that same sense of excitement as if I were seeing it again for the very first time.
I’ll admit that it’s unfair to compare Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry to either of those events. Yet, in a way, BlackBerry deliberately echoes both of them.
It wants to pull the audience into the intoxication of developing and unveiling a new product that, in its time, was as revolutionary as the iPhone itself. It also feels clearly inspired by Fincher’s The Social Network in its exploration of human bonds amidst exponential technological advancements. BlackBerry gives us all the ingredients we need to make a great rags to riches and back again story with one major exception: it completely omits any of the human interest that should serve as its beating heart.
BlackBerry introduces us to Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Paul Stannos (Rich Sommer), two budding entrepreneurs who have the right idea about how to blend a standard cell phone with the power of a small computer. They’re just absolutely terrible business persons. Enter Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), a disgraced businessman with the know-how and “fuck you” attitude to sell the most non-existent of mobile phone prototypes. He drags Lazaridis and company (Research in Motion or RIM) into the business world, nearly single-handedly bringing the BlackBerry to life against literally every odd.
It is a great start-up story, no doubt about that. It’s also a compelling Icarus story about making dangerous choices to win at any cost. As we all know, the BlackBerry died the day the iPhone came out because other companies simply failed to compete with its ingenuity at that time.
But where the film BlackBerry fails is in its total lack of character depth. In its failure to attempt to convey any sense of who these players are. What drives them? What are their relationships? It’s all by-the-numbers storytelling of events, but none of those events are backed by an understanding or exploration of the inherent human conflicts within. The Social Network focused on its central anti-hero of Mark Zuckerberg. It has perspectives about this character, interesting ideas about his actions, and a compelling way of challenging our own perceptions of who he is and of what he did. We’re given Lazaridis as a socially inept programmer, Stannos as a man-child party boy, and Balsillie (Howerton, giving this role his all) as a hard-ass and ruthless monster. But what drives any of them? Why is Balsillie so intense and ruthless? What’s his personal life like? Why was he so obsessed with RIM? With Lazaridis, why did he openly ape Jobs’s iPhone presentation in a subsequent product pitch to Verizon and then only turn around to ignore the power of the iPhone when he clearly had the core ingenuity to perhaps beat it?
The Social Network gives you a full meal, delicate nuance in a story expertly told with a broad array of cinematic tools.
Despite being quite entertaining, BlackBerry has none of that. In the film, we’re only given the who’s and the what’s.
Art lives in the why’s.