BLACKBERRY – Review by Emma Badame
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the story of the sensational rise and fall of the first smartphone would make a better doc than drama, but director and co-writer Matt Johnson turns that theory on its head with the fabulous bio-comedy, and faux-documentary, BlackBerry.
Adapted by Johnson and producer Matthew Miller, from the book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, the proudly Canadian feature tells the home-grown story of Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), the two men behind the spectacularly popular line of thumb-numbing mobile devices. It traces its beginnings at the Waterloo, Ontario-based tech company Research in Motion (RiM) to its impressive and catastrophic downfall, largely due to cocky business decisions and a failure to keep up in an ever-changing, fast-moving market.
For those caught up in the current era of iPhones and Androids, it’s hard to convey just how revolutionary this first smartphone was. Business quite literally became mobile, and that feeling of freedom crossed over into the lives of everyone, not just the target market of be-suited Wall Street businessmen. In retrospect, allowing us all to become available 24/7 may not have been the breakthrough society needed, but you can’t deny the changes BlackBerry and its parent company brought to our everyday lives.
Though some of its audience will remember that categorical shift, as a film BlackBerry’s focus remains on the men behind the massive tech breakthrough. It digs deep into the Canuck nostalgia of the era, in both soundtrack choice and in the nature of some of its footage – particularly in stylized flashback sequences. Cinematographer Jacob Raab’s camera is in almost constant motion, a choice that may divide viewers, but the almost frenzied movement seems tailor-made to fit the restless nature of the men at the core of the film’s narrative.
It’s not hard to see why BlackBerry premiered to rave reviews at the 2023 Berlinale. It is as witty and sharp as it is entertaining, with its two leads, Baruchel and Howerton, absolutely nailing their characters and mining each for every bit of comedy and, indeed, drama. The oft-underappreciated Howerton, in particular, is magnetic as Balsillie – the Harvard grad man whose impressive business acumen proved essential to Research in Motion’s success. The acting duo is supported by a fine-tuned supporting roster, including Johnson, Rich Sommer, Michael Ironside, Martin Donovan, SungWon Cho, Saul Rubinek, and Cary Elwes – all perfectly cast in their individual roles. Veteran Canadian actress Michelle Giroux provides one of the film’s only female perspectives, as Dara Frankel – an investigator looking into the company’s hiring practices who proves to be key to RiM’s downfall – and she does the absolute most with what she is given.
Overall, it’s hard not to get on board with the darkly comic BlackBerry. Though the rag-tag group of tech and business types at its core are hardly underdogs, it’s hard to watch their story play out and not find yourself wishing that they’d found a way to overcome their own hubris to remain in the game. And that’s largely due to the film’s charismatic performances and keen direction from Johnson.