Blackberry: New Phone, Who’s This?

All he wanted was total dominion over the smartphone market and a hockey team in Hamilton, Ontario. He is Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), the former CEO of Research in Motion, the company responsible for the once-popular Blackberry model of mobile phones. Making a large bid on the Pittsburgh Penguins, who needed a new arena and were floundering as a franchise for the second time in the team’s history, just as a young Sidney Crosby was coming into his own in the league. Balsillie did not play by the league’s rules and became, whether you’re from Hamilton or somewhere else, either a fascinating story about a power struggle to bring a sport home or a businessman invested in good ideas that end up with poorly executed results. That’s a better movie, the struggle, and necessity to bring a hockey team home is a fascinating story. You have grand characters baked in: Jim Balsillie, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, and two of the greatest hockey athletes in history, Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby. That’s a story with at least three stages, as Balsillie tried his luck two more times, with the then-struggling but now very profitable Nashville Predators and Gary Bettman’s failing pet project in the desert, the Arizona Coyotes. Sure, you can pepper some Blackberry events in there, that would be just fine, but a story about the business of hockey has never been properly made and would be very interesting.

What gets made all the time are biopics about executives for companies of products that we know about. The thinking goes, if we are invested in the product, we might be invested in the people who made it. Blackberry, like many such movies, is an opportunity to look down our noses at history and earlier inventions and think, how did we all get by before the iPhone anyway? And we have these primary documents about popular figures from this era already. We have the Aaron Sorkin penned and David Fincher directed The Social Network (2010) and the Aaron Sorkin penned and Danny Boyle directed Steve Jobs (2015). As a consequence, we now have a wave of filmmakers whose taste has grown around these movies and is reproducing the beats of their stories and Sorkinese character backgrounding in a mostly palatable but mildly imitative way.

A well-licensed soundtrack shows where the budget has gone as we enter the playfield of early Dudes in Offices development of the Blackberry. That’s right, the folks behind the device worshipped at the alter of John Carmack and DOOM (1993) — why they pronounce the game’s developer, id, as “I-D,” is anyone’s guess. Between crunch time on making the world’s smallest emailing device, they play LAN games of Command & Conquer, where a symbolic plunger is moved to the losing computer. They screen classic cinema between shifts of Real Time Strategy and listen to cassette tapes from the ’90s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films to decompress. It’s that kind of office that could only have existed at that kind of time. It brings up a nice specificity for a certain kind of tech development and the feeling of that community at that moment.

They had made such a beautiful prototype and controlled the lion’s share of the market. It was a breezy ride for the crew at Blackberry. Then came Steve Jobs’ announcement of the iPhone. At that precise moment, humanity evolved into a different technological age. All of the aforementioned elements of tech development died with that presentation and in its place was birthed a new breed of technological advancement. The genius of the iPhone is not simply that it didn’t have a keyboard but that all the Blackberry had, as its primary competition, was a keyboard. How could it possibly compete with the impending future was simply a phone that was not what they were making?

This leads down the expected paths, if you’ve watched any of these recent films about the inventors of products and early innovators in tech sectors, you’ve seen them all. If Aaron Sorkin didn’t write them you probably didn’t need to see them very much. That’s true with Blackberry, which has such bare-standard composition and a script that sinks into casual obviousness, that it can hardly impress anything like a new idea on the audience. The most it can probably do is remind us of old things and how they used to be. At least there’s a really fun hockey story in there. Much like the ascension of Steve Jobs and Apple, NHL’s Gary Bettman and his Board of Governors were never going to let Jim Balsillie win. He always had the right ideas but was tragically out of touch. The resulting film is just so formally unmoving, stuck in the stasis of typified biopic trappings, and with no ideas to work itself out of such easy cliches, the film is a non-starter. There’s almost certainly a more interesting film in here but now that we’ve entered a phase where even the losers of the tech sector get their movies, we’re probably going to have to sit through a lot of deeply anti-climatic storytelling over the next few years.


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