3.5 out of 5 stars

While sitting around late-night campfires, the post-Millennials among you may have heard tales of the legend of the BlackBerry. Now considered the first handheld smartphone, it was developed in the late-1990s by the Canadian tech company Research in Motion (RIM). By our standards, it was a primitive device—an e-mail pager that users operated by pressing their thumbs on a tiny keyboard that gave off comforting clicks, a feature that was a big selling point.

The BlackBerry evolved into an array of handheld devices that rapidly conquered its sole target: the business market. By the mid-2000s, it had become the most successful tech-communication device in history, reaching, by some accounts, nearly 45% of the market share. Its most fanatical users became the first “tech addicts,” earning it the nickname “CrackBerry”.

Then along came Android, iOS, and the touch screen. BlackBerry was unable to keep up. Not even the comforting feel of those keyboard clicks could save it. Within a few short years, the device’s market share flatlined and the product disappeared as fast as it arrived (though the parent company still thrives). That’s the outline of the actual history, as told in the book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry b Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff.

But as so often happens, when filmmakers get their hands on real history, legend and myth tend to brush away the facts… and the Canadian film BlackBerry does plenty of brushing away in its adaptation of the book. When it comes to the details under the surface, the film is more a riff, as fanciful in its way as John Wayne’s The Alamo (1960). Fortunately, even as it often steers into pure fiction (see: History vs. Hollywood for a rundown of its changes), the film is good enough to forgive its frequent liberties.

BlackBerry opens like a farce: RIM CEO Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and his best friend and co-founder Douglas Fregin (Matt Johnson), attempt to pitch their new handheld device the ‘Pocketlink’ to businessman Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), a man of rabid temper and shark-like demeanour.  Since it’s the mid-1990s, years before PowerPoint, their presentation is strictly analogue: illustrations, magic markers, a large paper pad, and a flimsy easel that topples over at the slightest breeze.

The pitch goes poorly. Mike appears to be “on the spectrum” with a deep streak of OCD, as he obsesses over the buzzing noise emanating from Balsillie’s cheesy Chinese-made intercom. Doug, meanwhile, is an irrepressible loudmouth hippie. Balsillie rapidly loses his patience with the duo’s fumbling and stammering and dropkicks them out of his office. 

That very day, Balsillie is fired by his bosses for abusing his colleagues while pursuing some questionable tax schemes. As he packs up his office, he discovers a diagram of the new device Doug and Mike left behind. Maybe, he thinks, there’s an idea there after all…

Jim is a vulpine-looking ferret out of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Like many a modern pirate, he’s a desperate man, drowning in debt—not due to drugs and hookers, but to his obsession with buying a professional hockey team and then somehow taking over the sport. He bullies his way into RIM’s tiny tech-bro playground, promising he’ll make the company a success, but only if they appoint him CEO of RIM, giving him the run of the joint.

Mike and Doug push back. Jim, who’s never even heard of Star Wars (1977), fits in their playground like a cobra in a kiddie pool. Rightly suspicious, Mike and, especially Doug, tell him they have no need for him, not with their upcoming swell deal with USRobotics, thank you very much. But when Jim proves USRobotics’s promises are a mere ploy to drive RIM from the marketplace, Mike caves. Over Doug’s objections, he makes Jim co-CEO, in that eternally naïve belief he can control Balsillie’s worst excesses. With the devil now running the house, RIM changes from an Oz-like playground into a sweatshop.

Sad to say, the devil gets his due, at least in terms of profit. Over the next decade, Balsillie solders his interests to RIM’s, rapidly turning it into a telecommunications powerhouse far beyond the dreams of its founders. In this account, it’s he who renames the Pocketlink “BlackBerry,” links RIM up with Bell Atlantic, and with some additional comic good fortune, takes the company into the stratosphere.

But the higher BlackBerry rises, the more Mike, and to a greater extent, Doug, find their dream becoming a nightmare. Corporate raiders, among them Carl Yankowksi of Palm (Cary Elwes), come slithering around attempting a hostile takeover. Balsillie meanwhile, lets the company slide as he pursues his bumbling and humiliating quest to be King of All Hockey.

BlackBerry is spirited entertainment; bitter, sardonic, and rueful. Co-writer director Matt Johnson and cinematographer Jared Raab employ floating camerawork, along with the desaturated colours often found in 1970s films. Its deceptively loose approach and acerbic tone may remind you of other recent workplace-corporate comedies such as The Office (2005-2013) and Succession (2018-2022). It’s full of fine background details of the nerd paradise associated with Silicon Valley high-tech firms (though, again, RIM’s Canadian reality was quite different.)

Glenn Howerton is a standout as the conniving and feral Balsillie. Baruchel as Mike and Matt Johnson as Doug are well matched, one suppressed and withdrawn, the other voluble and defiant toward the forces that will undo the world he founded and force him, finally, to leave (but not before making himself among the richest men in the world). Heavyweight support comes from Michael Ironside as an enforcer hired by Balsillie to turn RIM into a boot camp, and Saul Rubinek as the head of Bell Atlantic, whose benign exterior hides the cunning behind his glittering eyes,

Blackberry is edgy and very much of our time; a comedy of avarice about a place where good ideas are shredded by greed and ambition. As we’ve seen here, and in other stories, such as The Social Network (2010), the quest for a frictionless interconnected world will inevitably create more friction.

CANADA | 2023 | 121 MINUTES | 2.00:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider xyz

Cast & Crew

director: Matt Johnson.
writers: Matt Johnson & Matthew Miller (based on the book ‘Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry‘ by Jacquie McNish Sean Silcoff.)
starring: Glenn Howerton, Jay Baruchel, Matt Johnson, Michael Ironside, Martin Donovan, Michelle Giroux, SungWon Cho, Mark Critch, Saul Rubinek & Cary Elwes.