The brief supremacy of the Blackberry phone in the world of telecommunication technology is, through the gift of hindsight, an all-too-common rise-fall story. In a narrative familiar to the hermetic tech business world, a band of unconventional outsiders working far removed from the central focal point of Silicon Valley ascended to the forefront of the industry before being knocked off its newly minted pedestal just as quickly by a new innovation or product — usually backed by more venture capital and consumer interest.
In an industry necessitated by a state of perpetual innovation, this happens all the time. Here in Canada, however, the dramatic turnaround of Research in Motion Limited (RIM) and the crumbling of its wireless handheld empire that was built around the Blackberry was so infamous and instantaneous that it’s still near impossible to appreciate the company’s success — controlling a significant share of the mobile phone market throughout the 2000s against stiff competition — without mentioning how suddenly it all evaporated.
Based in part on Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s book, Losing the Signal, Blackberry is the succinct retelling of the birth of the smartphone era of modern history, using its first dominant player as a reminder of its precarity and ever-developing landscape. Helmed by Matt Johnson, a similar unconventional Canadian outsider knocking on the doors of the centralized industry that is Hollywood, the story of the rapid success and failure of a former innovator in smartphone technology is given a lively presentation and comedic quirkiness that is reminiscent of his more offbeat directorial efforts, such as The Dirties and Operation: Avalanche.
Johnson and co-screenwriter Matthew Miller have taken the structural conventions of the biopic formula, which this story lends itself particularly well to, and imbued it with an infectious misfit charm and frenetic tension that extracts so much unexpected entertainment from its premise. Most audiences will likely walk away stunned by how invested they found themselves in scenes revolving mostly around tech engineers meticulously discussing data limitations or executives projecting potential sales numbers — especially considering how well known the flame-out ending to this saga is today. Through its efficient relaying, condensing and exaggerating of events as they transpired and its memorable characterizations of the people behind this one-time monopoly on communication, Johnson’s film is riveting, despite it offering nothing in terms of surprise to those familiar with the story.
Blackberry is mostly viewed through two key players who serendipitously acted as joint CEOs during peak years of Blackberry’s success. On one side, you have the timid and introverted tech savant Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel), whose atypically passionate approach to tech engineering leaves him lost and ripe to be taken advantage of in a competitive and lucrative field. On the other side is Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), a stringent, yuppie-investor type in the vein of Gordon Gecko completely who is lost in the world of telecommunications except when it comes to marketing and funding it. Blackberry’s post-mortem on the crumbling of the first smartphone company partially lays the blame on RIM being a house divided — the principled engineer with a vision who assembled a team of nerds who match his passion contrasting with the unscrupulous businessman who floods the team with capital and talent to boost stock prices and crush the competition. This uneasy contrast at its center takes the film through Blackberry’s humble beginnings in 1992 through its domination in the 2000s until it all falls apart in 2012.
It’s evident from the onset that Johnson and Miller have taken liberties with the story and broken down some of the real-world people into easy-to-recognize stock attributes. Told in service of cutting through the dry complexity of telecom operations and breathing new life into a story played out exclusively through WIRED cover stories as it was happening, the film works, despite how glaringly obvious the liberties can be. The cast has tuned into the wavelength of Johnson’s playfulness with facts (who himself appears as RIM co-founder Doug Fregin and who acts as Blackberry’s metaphorical childhood innocence waiting to be stamped out by the business) and universally delivers fantastic performances with what he makes out of the material. Howerton — specifically with his embodying of the raging, success-obsessed, abuser that the film paints Jim Balsillie as — practically demands your attention whenever he is on screen.
Once again, despite what the material would have you believe, the film is quite a dynamic looker. Under the eye of cinematographer and frequent Johnson collaborator, James Raab, Blackberry is presented in an affective, grimy, handheld style with a certain grit to its muted color palette. It is not as frenetic and visceral as found-footage horror but more in the vein of the sitcom mockumentaries that were all the rage in the mid-2000s.
Part of the reason why Blackberry feels so enthralling, despite your knowing the story and always anticipating the imminent collapse, is because Johnson and Raab’s punchy, tense and often darkly hilariously framing of it all keeps you engrossed. I remember witnessing the dramatic decline of Blackberry in real time, having grown up near the company’s headquarters in Waterloo, and Blackberry had me on the edge of my seat.
Blackberry doesn’t necessarily improve on any of the tired story formulas and stock archetypes that the biopic and historical drama have popularized. Instead, choosing to double down on the conventions and present them with ample doses of irony and subversion, the result is by the far the most entertaining film that could be pulled out of this modern-day saga of unexpected success and devastating failure in the now ubiquitous tech world. Johnson and Miller found an angle (and potential kinship) with the scrappy tech nerds and shallow businessmen behind the Blackberry to tell a classic story of betrayed ideals and forsaken friendships in pursuit of the corrupting forces of money, power and influence. It’s perfectly fine for facts to take the proverbial backseat to exaggerated storytelling so long as you do that well. And Blackberry does it very well.