REVIEW: “BlackBerry” (2023)

Here’s one of those cases where a film’s title really does say it all. The straightforwardly named “BlackBerry” from Canadian director Matt Johnson is a biographical dramedy based on the fascinating true story of the BlackBerry brand of smartphones. If you remember, the BlackBerry grew enormously popular during the 2000s and was often seen in the hands of such celebrities as Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, and President Barack Obama.

The highly innovative BlackBerry line was perhaps best known for its unique physical keypad and the super satisfying clicks that accompanied each press (many found it so addictive they dubbed the device “Crackberry”). I never had one but I freely admit to being a little jealous of those I knew who did. But like much in the tech industry, BlackBerry eventually fell to the next big thing. In their case it was the introductions of Apple’s IPhone and Google’s Android.

“BlackBerry” pulls quite a bit from the true story of the company’s rise and fall. It’s loosely adapted from Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s book “Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry”. But what Johnson gives us is more of a mockumentary-styled satire of a tech industry on the eve of one of the biggest tech booms in history. It’s a funny yet insightful cautionary tale that hones in on the people at its center more than the product that would make them billionaires.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Co-written by Johnson and Matthew Miller, the story kicks off in 1996. In a role tailor-made for his awkward charm, Jay Baruchel plays Mike Lazaridis who back in 1984 co-founded Research In Motion with his longtime best friend Douglas Fregin (played by Johnson himself). In the movie their small Waterloo, Ontario based company consists of an easygoing pack of 14 fellow computer engineering nerds who spend as much time throwing LAN parties and watching movies as they do soldering circuit boards and writing code.

Elsewhere the temperamental and overly ambitious market strategist Jim Balsillie (a blustery Glenn Howerton) gets axed from his company for aggressively disobeying his boss (briefly played by the always good Martin Donovan). Smelling a potential fortune (and out of desperation), Jim bulls his way into a partnership with Mike. He puts down $20,000 and agrees to use his industry connections to market their exciting new product, the PocketLink (“a pager, a cell phone, and an e-mail machine all in one,” Doug proudly states). All Jim wants in return is fifty percent of their company and to be named CEO. Ouch.

They come to an agreement with Mike and Jim serving as co-CEOs. Mike will oversee product development while Jim hits the road to lure in potential investors. Of course as history informs us the PocketLink evolves into the BlackBerry and soon Research in Motion emerges as a market leader in wireless mobile devices.

As the popularity of their product grows so does the financial pressure. Mike, Doug, and their team scramble to innovate and keep up with the demand. But in true “The Social Network” style, success inevitably puts a strain on their relationship. It’s a friction you sense coming a mile away yet we still root for the pair as they struggle to maintain their friendship.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Meanwhile the shrewd and unscrupulous Jim is out in the field doing whatever it takes to grow and protect his investment. We see him illegally backdating stock options in order to lure away engineers from rivals Microsoft and Google. He’s also staving off a potential hostile takeover by PalmPilot head Carl Yankowski (a joyously despicable Cary Elwes). And all while he’s secretly trying to purchase his own NHL hockey franchise – a move driven by his own underhanded motivations.

It’s easy for us to see the writing on the wall and it doesn’t take long to tell that things aren’t going to end well. But Johnson keeps us invested. He moves things along at a crisp pace and the crackling dialogue has a Sorkin-esque edge as it chronicles the whirlwind corporate successes and missteps. Yet Johnson keeps things distinctly character-focused and never loses sight of the humanity at his story’s core. And all while being effortlessly funny in a subdued sharply witty way.

It’s also easy to fall in with Johnson’s verité filmmaking. From the frequently moving handheld cams to the strategic zooms which add as much to the humor as they do the drama. It’s a tricky directorial style that can often backfire. But here it actually works really well. And that’s true of “BlackBerry” as a whole – it works really well. It may lack the polish of similar 2023 corporate underdog movies like “Tetris” and “Air”, but Matt Johnson along with his game cast nail it where it counts.


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