A stylish, humorous, semi-fictionalized and sometimes disarmingly intense look at the rise and fall of one of Canada’s biggest tech companies, BlackBerry follows a well established formula and propels it to new heights with tonal ingenuity and exceptional performances. At its most basic level, BlackBerry, written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Matt Johnson, is the story of a group of nerdy, brilliant misfits and a hard-charging business world has-been who band together to give the world one of the most game changing technological innovations in the history of mankind. It’s also – you guessed it – the story of how all involved managed to squander their success in varied, intersecting ways.
Beginning in the mid-90s, upstart company Research In Motion were taking the steps towards creating a device that would change the world as we know it. Led by brilliant tech wunderkind Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and his co-founder/best friend Doug (Johnson), the company was trying to find capital for a major project that would put unused data signals to good use. Their idea would eventually become known as the BlackBerry, a device that would help usher in the smartphone era, but the company was on the financial ropes. Their ascent to the top of business and industry would be helped along by CEO Jim Basillie (Glenn Howerton), a hard charging, unapologetically blunt tycoon who was essentially ousted from his previous job because he refused to listen to anyone other than himself, and he had a penchant for taking credit for things he never had a hand in. Together, Basillie and Lazaridis would forge an empire, but the former’s ambitions and the latter’s inability to stand up to his alpha dog overseer would help to nearly kill off the brand.
On a narrative level, Johnson and co-writer Matthew Miller’s “fictionalization of real people” (as the opening makes known) is indebted to the Aaron Sorkin penned screenplays for The Social Network and Steve Jobs; movies where visionaries experience great highs and crushing lows due in no small part to their own hubris. Visually, BlackBerry is closer to the sort of faux documentaries that Johnson had previously made with the likes of The Dirties and Operation Avalanche. It’s a tried and true formula for stories set with one foot in the tech sector and the other on the business side of things, and it proves to be a good fit for Johnson’s particular set of skills. The fly on the wall style of BlackBerry makes sit down meetings feel like nail biting make or break moments, and sequences that take place on the engineering floor at Research in Motion are focused chaos in action. Johnson is the best filmmaker in Canada at the moment when it comes to creating pressure cooker environments. Even those who know where the story of BlackBerry is ultimately heading will find the snappy pacing and smart storytelling effortlessly captivating.
Johnson’s actors – himself included – are also given a lot of great material to pull from and turn in richly layered performances. Baruchel gives one of his career best turns as Lazaridis, an easily distracted, but highly capable visionary who always seems ill at ease with his own brilliance; pretty much a part the Montreal native was born to play, imbuing Mike with both wishy-washiness and great empathy. Johnson tweaks the outsized personality he’s trotted out in previous projects to play Mike’s closest confidant, a fun loving, but deeply caring goofball who acts as the polar opposite to Howerton’s towering Balsillie.
As for Howerton, his turn as Balsillie is a career best performance; a snake in wolf’s clothing who’s willing to do whatever is needed to keep both himself and the company in the black. Scenes shared between Howerton and Baruchel have a particular poignancy because of how deeply Jim imprints his own backwards philosophies upon Mike. Howerton gets the showier and flashier character, but Baruchel gets a more fascinating narrative arc. Together, the pairing is magical, and a stacked supporting cast (Saul Rubinek as a telecom chairman, Cary Elwes as a rival executive and corporate raider, Michael Ironside as a hard edged “fixer” brought in to snap the RiM team into being more productive) help to further distinguish the film as a major player.
Although it’s set in the not-so-distant past, BlackBerry has a lot to say about how the titular device (which was killed off via a combination of bad business decisions and the arrival of the now ubiquitous iPhone) and the company that made it were the epitome of modern day “fake it till you make it” business practices. Johnson brings those feelings home by deftly drawing on his previously established ability to seamlessly blend comedy, emotional stakes, and mounting tension without breaking a sweat. Almost everyone in BlackBerry seems stressed out at all times, but Johnson approaches even the darkest moments with wit, grace, and smart readings of every situation. It’s kind of funny that the least stressed out character in the film, Doug, is the one played by the director, the person tasked with keeping all of this chaos under control.
BlackBerry has a familiar structure, but Johnson utilizes this formula to his advantage. There have been no shortage of films and other cautionary tales about businesspeople with swift rises and precipitous falls, but Johnson has improved upon the prototype thanks to his unique authorial voice and perspective. Part comedy of errors, part espionage thriller, and part tragedy, BlackBerry is built around clashing personalities and visions all striving towards the same goal. Those actually involved in the creation of the BlackBerry might’ve lost sight of that goal over time, but Johnson never does.
BlackBerry opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, May 12, 2023.
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