BlackBerry | Review
Hold the Phone: Johnson Delivers the Ballad of the BlackBerry
Exposing the accidental alchemy which generated the titular BlackBerry, the world’s first Smartphone (and as the prototype for how technology would eventually rule our lives), Matt Johnson’s third feature reenacts the homegrown wheelings and dealings of a Canadian tech company which dominated the market throughout the 2000s.
An Icarian odyssey of an unprecedented ascent followed by a swift fall from grace, it plays like the footnote of a specific period, detailing the limitations of innovation when its own pioneers fall prey to their own hubris. Although ultimately less scandalous than it is a juicy saga on greed and the inevitable folly it formulates, the tone is in keeping with Johnson’s clandestine interests, such as his Cold War era espionage title, Operation Avalanche (2016). But his latest is also a rather grim example of plain old just desserts.
In 1996 Waterloo, Ontario, Mike Lazaradis (Jay Baruchel), created the prototype for what came to be known as the BlackBerry, the world’s first smart phone. But despite being classified as a boy genius, the thirty something Lazaradis didn’t have a head for business. Having co-founded the company RIM (Research in Motion) with his best friend, Doug (Johnson), Lazaradis couldn’t formulate a proper pitch for the device. With his company in the red, a chance meeting with Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), who’d just been fired from his previous employer and recognized the potential of the invention, would be the fortuitous perfect storm. Balsillie, an obnoxious narcissist with little man syndrome, would be the sledgehammer to set the wheels in motion. As RIM became BlackBerry Limited, the success of the device was unprecedented. Mining endless technological issues after implementation, the pair of them would claw their way to the top, their success eclipsing the inevitability of becoming obsolete. With Apple introducing the iPhone and its touchscreen, the SEC embarks on investigation of their company regarding stock fraud.
As BlackBerry itself ultimately proves, the device was part of our continually fluctuating technological hunger, designed, it would seem, to walk so eventually the iPhone could run. The most interesting account is the human folly lurking behind its creation and marketing, pairing a meek genius with a monstrous businessman, who were smart enough to recognize a marketable need but were unable to predict their own shelf life, or possibilities beyond the horizon of their own limited time.
Baruchel’s Lazaridis is the steady, guiding force until the entire operation balloons out of his control, partly because he had no way of wrangling his cohort, a comically unhinged Glen Howerton, who plays Jim Balsillie like a stampeding rhino (and not far removed from his It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia persona). Caught between them is Johnson himself as Doug, the co-founder of RIM who acted as the defensive mouthpiece Lazaridis couldn’t naturally be. If anything, it’s also an age-old example of selling out on friendship for profit, and while BlackBerry exemplifies this, we don’t quite delve into either of these men as actual people, merely figures in a tragedy of their own making.
On the sidelines, we receive dependable appearances from Saul Rubinek as the Verizon CEO and Cary Elwes as PalmPilot’s manipulative ambulance chaser. And a formidable Michael Ironside, who’s headhunted by Balsillie to be RIM”s new COO, brings a complex zest to the second half of the film. It’s clear RIM’s employees have all been flying by the seat of their pants, taking advantage of considerable lulls, so Ironside’s bullish personality and daunting frame plays like a welcome dose of reality.
But perhaps the real star of the film is Jared Raab’s cinematography, attempting to be a fly on the wall exerting comedic focus as if we’re in a really toxic episode of “The Office.” While both the period and specificity of such a once-successful technological advancement might recall David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010), Johnson’s film doesn’t move beyond the actual details of this rise and fall, hitting its beats and letting the material speak for itself. Much like the Smartphone it’s investigating, BlackBerry feels destined to be just that, a movie about a phone a lot of people used for a couple years, while the men who unleashed it by breaking the law were able to ride a crazy train towards unprecedented excess before politely stepping off when its track ended.
Reviewed on February 17th at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival – Competition. 121 mins.