In 1996, Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel, TV's 'Man Seeking Woman,' "Goon") and his best friend Doug Fregin (Matt Johnson) tried to make a pitch about their idea for the first mobile device to Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton, TV's 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia') at Sutherland-Schultz, but their attempt was awkward and he was distracted by an upcoming merger meeting. But when Balsillie was fired, he remembered the two nerdy guys from Waterloo and offered them a cash infusion for 50% of Research in Motion and its CEO position. Despite Doug’s warnings that Jim appeared sketchy, Mike was desperate and a deal was struck for both he and Jim to lead what would become known as “Blackberry.”
Laura's Review: B
Writer/director/star Matt Johnson has made a big leap forward as a filmmaker since his clever 2017 indie “Operation Avalanche.” Adapting Jacquie McNish’s book, Johnson takes on a sprawling ensemble, multiple locations and the complexities of the tech boom with a fast-paced, indie rock fueled dramedy with a unique Canadian flair.
While Mike was the major brains of the operation, Doug was Research In Motion’s cultural soul, keeping their merry band of engineers happy with group video gaming and regular movie nights, and Balsillie’s hiring was the beginning of Doug’s end. Jim is all business, brusque and even rude, marching in and taking control of a modem deal bleeding the company by mortgaging his house. He demands that a prototype of RIM’s email terminal/phone combination be made overnight while Mike stammers ineffectually, then marvels when, at New York’s Bell Atlantic offices the next day, Mike, who’s forgotten said prototype to Jim’s utter astonishment, stuns John Woodman (Saul Rubinek, Showtime's 'Billions') with the technical answer that had eluded their own efforts.
Blackberry is soon the hottest gadget on the market but with Palm Pilot’s Carl Yankowski (Cary Elwes, "The Princess Bride") attempting a hostile takeover, Jim throws anything like caution to the winds, backdating stock options to lure engineers like Paul Stannos (Rich Sommer, Hulu's 'The Dropout') from Google. When he steals Motorola’s Ritchie Cheung (SungWon Cho), Charles Purdy’s (Michael Ironside, "Scanners," Hulu's 'The Dropout') aggressive management style also catches his eye and Jeff hires him, much to both Ritchie and Doug’s consternation. Now stationed in slick new quarters, RIM is nothing like it used to be with its nose-to-the-grindstone ethos. After Doug gets a concerning phone call from the SEC, then gets told he’s useless by a stressed out Mike, he leaves (watch for how he landed in the film’s closing credits). Then Apple announces its iPhone and in a pathetic race to catch up, Mike caves to Purdy’s desire to manufacture in China, a disastrous final nail in Blackberry’s coffin.
Johnson’s largely Canadian cast runs the gamut of character types, Baruchel surprising as the often tongue-tied braniac corrupted by Jim’s methods (something which happens a bit abruptly in one of the film’s time leaps). But it is Howerton, who shaved his head for the role, who steals the show as the hair trigger exec whose all encompassing love of hockey is just another outlet for Balsillie’s skullduggery as he tries to buy a team. Johnson’s Doug, his shaggy do kept in check with a red athletic headband, is Mike’s Jiminy Cricket, the film’s moral compass and emblem of Canadian nerd culture. RIM’s early, chaotic office is peopled with Canadian filmmaker and musician friends of the filmmaker’s.
The production encompasses everything from that jumble of RIM’s startup office to New York conference rooms, airport runways and hockey arenas, Johnson imbuing the film with 90’s flavor via early video gaming, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and the sound of a dial-up modem. Cinematographer Jared Raab ("Operation Avalanche") keeps his camera roving, enhancing the film’s energetic drive. The soundtrack features such cuts as Joy Division's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart,' The Breeders' 'Cannonball,' The Strokes' 'Someday' and The White Stripes' 'Hello Operator.'
“Blackberry” may not be another “Social Network,” but few films are and Johnson’s film captures the eternal disconnect between technical genius and business savvy, the creative cultural environment’s clash with cut throat corporate tactics. It is also emblematic of Canadian pride in the development of the first smartphone, an achievement that deserves better than being known as ‘that phone people had before they had an iPhone.’
Robin's Review: B
Everyone ‘knows’ the BlackBerry, that popular phone from the 90s that introduced us to the term for the addiction to the small communications device: the Crackberry. But I did not know anything about the meteoric rise and catastrophic fall of that compact cell phone called the “BlackBerry.”
We have had several films come out in the recent past that give us the history of iconic items that effected life everywhere. “Air” is about that lucrative and historic business deal between Nike and Michael Jordan – who does not know Air Jordans - and “Tetris” tells the story of how one of the world’s most popular video games came to be. “BlackBerry” carries on the “how it came to be” line of storytelling.
Canadian director Matt Johnson adapts the script he wrote with Matthew Miller and they tell a story – based on the non-fiction book by Jacquie McNish, Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of the BlackBerry - that few knew the details. Things begin with the designers of a device that is a phone, an email system and encryption device rolled into one as they pitch their invention to a faceless corporation. “No thanks” is the response. Then, one of the execs of the company, Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), recently fired, offers to get the product rolled out – the BlackBerry.
The story that follows tells of genius, greed and corporate wrangling, with fortunes made and lost and lives ruined. It is kind of the American dream, but Canadian-style, The large and talented cast is made up with veteran actors, such as Martin Donovan, Michael Ironside, Saul Rubinek and Cary Elwes, but the story centers on co-inventor Mike Lazasridis (comic actor Jay Baruchel, in an effective dramatic role) and Balsillie as each follows his destiny. Director Matt Johnson makes the duo a trio as the other co-founder, Doug Fregin.
The device soon became the favorite of corporate executives and managers and the BlackBerry market share, because of the innovative design and on-board keypad, skyrocketed. Continued growth and market expansion seemed limitless. Then, Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone and the whole game changed.
There is a lot going on here as we look back on the innovations formed in the 1990s and capitalized on, quite literally, in the 2000s. I never used a BlackBerry but, the film feels like a nostalgic look at the era and, oddly, very familiar to a technophobe like me.
IFC Films releases "Blackberry" in theaters on 5/12/23.