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Review: BlackBerry

May 11, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The rise and fall of Waterloo, Ontario tech company Research in Motion, and their once-mighty BlackBerry, is charted in Canadian director Matt Johnson’s energetic and fast-paced film BlackBerry.

This latest feature from Johnson, who previously showed what he is capable of with his DIY indies Operation Avalanche and The Dirties, plays as a sort of The Social Network meets Wall Street (though The Big Short meets The Wolf of Wall Street would be an equally apt comparison).

It’s a saga of tech geeks becoming billionaires only to be undone by corporate greed, and Johnson keeps the film entertaining with his sharp, tragicomic take on the material; he smartly frames it as the story of a friendship falling apart amidst the birth of the modern smartphone.

The year is 1996, and nerdy tech genius Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and his goofball best friend Doug Fregin (Matt Johnson) have cracked the code of putting a computer in a cellphone, inventing a device that makes phone calls, sends emails, and fits in the palm of your hand. It combines your phone, pager, and personal computer into one, complete with a satisfyingly clicky little keyboard.

They call it the PocketLink, and the opening scene finds them awkwardly trying to sell it to Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), a hurried executive who brushes them aside. But Balsillie eventually comes crawling back with an offer to go into business with them to help sell their product, with the stipulation that he is made co-CEO of Research in Motion (RIM) alongside Lazaridis. This concession is one of the first signs of selling out, and a fracturing of the close friendship between Lazaridis and Fregin, who flinches at putting this corporate attack dog in charge of their scrappy startup.

The film charts the early days of RIM, with an office that is run more like a geeky dorm room, including video game sessions and weekly movie nights hosted by film nerd Doug. This all changes when Balsillie enters the picture, whipping the team of engineers into shape and upscaling the production to meet the newfound demands of the business class who want their device. We watch as the company rises to the top, before it all comes crashing down around them, partially due to the release of Apple’s iPhone.

Adapted from Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s non-fiction book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, BlackBerry is a film of business rivalries and backroom deals as much as it is about tinkering over circuit boards. Johnson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Matthew Miller, cuts the material down to its essential elements, showing the exact moments when the once-idealistic Lazaridis bows to pressure from Balsillie and sells out, perhaps inadvertently dooming his company in the process.

It all unfolds in the span of two hours that fly by. Curt Lobb’s editing keeps the film ticking along at a good pace, while the kinetic, handheld camerawork by cinematographer Jared Raab, using long lenses and zoom-ins, gives it a fly-on-the-wall feel. The production design captures the aesthetic of the mid-1990s and early 2000s with its old cars, boxy computers, and dingy office spaces. Johnson’s character’s wardrobe of vintage movie and video game t-shirts, and a few key needle-drops, also help put us in the headspace of this time and place.

Johnson assembles a solid cast that includes plum roles for Saul Rubinek, Michael Ironside and Cary Elwes, and is fronted by the compelling pairing of Baruchel as the socially awkward tech genius and Howerton as the cutthroat businessman. Baruchel’s nervous, sympathetic portrayal of Lazaridis, and Howerton’s brilliantly ruthless portrayal of Balsillie, gives the film a push and pull that is gripping to watch. Howerton brings a venomous rage to the role that bursts off the screen. By contrast, Johnson’s earnest, shaggy dog portrayal of Fregin becomes almost heartbreaking.

While this is Johnson’s biggest, most mainstream production yet, BlackBerry still retains enough of a scrappy, indie movie vibe so that it doesn’t feel like the filmmaker is selling out. It also breaks open the boundaries of what we think of as a “Canadian film,” telling a Canadian story in an exciting, accessible way. It’s the balancing act between comedy and drama, satire and tragedy, that makes BlackBerry work so well, exemplified in Johnson’s wonderful staging of the bittersweet final moments.

BlackBerry opens exclusively in theatres on May 12th. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

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