Tech dreams are a fickle enterprise. They either go on to become the stuff of legends or they brutally die on the vine of obsoletion. The Blackberry (or the “Pocket Link” as it was bafflingly first dubbed) is one such tech dream that has boldly entered both domains. Pioneering our modern, universal understanding of the smartphone as a device that can do it all (text, email, and browse the internet) and becoming woefully irrelevant overnight— clinging to its bulky, outdated design while other inventive reformulations tapped into the very consumerist magic it first conjured.
Matt Johnson’s cinematic retelling of that drastic, Icarian fall from grace, the aptly named Blackberry, is sure to draw comparisons to David Fincher’s seminal The Social Network. Both films immerse themselves in the tech-land milieu, vividly tapping into the dramatic and morally thought-provoking power of a rise-and-fall narrative. Yet, instead of emulating Fincher’s sleek, visually dynamic thriller, Johnson creates his own riveting beast— one that is uniquely humorous, heartfelt, and undeniably steeped in Canadiana. Framed as an eccentric workplace dramedy, it heartily invests in its vivid personalities to cement an earnest take on the power dynamics between cutthroat Western capitalists and well-meaning, timid visionaries.
Johnson’s screenplay, co-penned by Matthew Miller, opens in 1996 in Canada’s Silicon Valley— Waterloo, Ontario. Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Douglas Fregin (Johnson) are the co-founders of Research in Motion (RIM), a software firm that operates more like an after-school tech club, struggling mightily to collect on contractually owed money while excelling at setting up LAN parties for employees.
Into this frayed nest of infantilism enters Jim Balsillie (an explosive Glen Howerton) who quickly recognizes Lazaridis’s value as an inventor. His strategic disengagement squeezes out a bare-bones prototype of a cellphone that will leverage existing networks to send emails and texts. The BlackBerry is born to great acclaim and even greater sales, effectively creating a new industry, and swelling the company to a gargantuan size.
Research in Motion gets bigger and noticeably badder, as it cuts corners, takes on shady employment contracts, and hires scowling overseers who drain the company of its fun-loving culture. The mounting missteps all lead up to the coffin-nailing launch of the iPhone, sending the firm down a fatal spiral of misbegotten hubris and arrogance that comes to epitomize everything Lazaridis came into the industry to change.
BlackBerry admirably sets its sights on character rather than mythmaking, never turning Lazaridis and company into scrupulous Zuckerberg-esque personas. Its deliberate tight focus on the happenings at the company itself—underpinned by a comical, light-hearted lens— rather than the social ramifications of the “Crackberry” hysteria allows it to impactfully transform its story about success and failure into one about the loss of innocence. A warm-hearted, oddball cautionary tale about budding heroes who slowly see themselves become the villains.
Its calculated emphasis on character is one that is equally buttressed by its performances. Though Baruchel won’t win an Oscar for his turn as Lazaridis, his natural, sunken demeanour works wonders for his arc, convincingly transitioning from a head-in-the-clouds dreamer to a vain, Napoleonic tech guru. He slowly turns into a techie version of Balsillie’s cocky, cruel executive, who is the driving force in the company’s ultimate extinction. Balsillie is played to perfection by a commanding, mesmerizingly cold Howerton, exploding with a compelling rage while radiating a subdued need for control and status— a man who is not satisfied until the world is in awe of him, even going as far as attempting to purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins and relocate them north of the border in Hamilton to showcase his stature.
The twisted symbiotic dynamic between Lazaridis and Balsillie is key to the film’s winning formula, wherein the former’s idealistic visionary requires the former’s ruthless, brazen persona to maximize his potential. It’s only when Lazaridis succumbs to the same icy vanity does it all begin to crumble.
Johnson’s turn as Fregin is wholly loveable, imbuing the moral heart of the film with a great, zany sense of melancholy. While Michael Ironside as the domineering COO Charles Purdy, who takes the whip to engineers by hilariously deriding them as “little children playing with their little penises”, is a formidable highlight. SungWon Cho and Mad Men Alum, Rich Sommer, also flavour the experience as engineering talent who are unethically and illegally poached by Balsilie from tech giants like Google.
Jared Raab’s grainy, economical cinematography is key to the film’s great textural sense of time and place. Its documentary-esque flourishes are never over-embellished, allowing the era-specific production design to do the heavy lifting. The nostalgic, 90s setting bursts with a palpable sense of atmosphere, emanating a wholly lived-in quality right down to the most minute detail, from the drably uniform Canadian strip malls— where the RIM office is situated next to a Shopper’s Drug Mart— to the era-appropriate bank notes. The thickset computer monitors, period-specific gaming references, and the radio broadcasts centering on the 90s Toronto Maple Leafs wonderfully double down on this effect, creating an experience that is as propulsive as it is transportive. Johnson’s passion for this tale is wholly evident in each frame, never relinquishing how quintessentially Canadian this account of a bygone age truly is.
As the film shifts to the 2000s, it begins to take on a much greyer, diluted palate that cleverly hints at the passion and sincerity that has been drained from RIM as it continues to balloon into a hollower corporate entity. It all coalesces in a painfully ironic, beautifully winking final shot.
Powered by Jay McCarrol’s whirring, retro-electronic score and some great needle drops (including the best use of “The Strokes” in recent memory), BlackBerry manifests as both a new Canadian classic and a vibrant entry into the tech-movie canon. In an early scene, Lazaridis makes it clear that he wants RIM to be a technological leader that doesn’t skimp on quality, noting “good enough is the enemy of humanity.” While the real corporation couldn’t live up to that standard, Johnson’s hearty biopic exceeds that sentiment and then some.
– Prabhjot Bains