BlackBerry: How About Them Keyboards?

A deeply Canadian tale that comes from one of the most ambitious Canadians to never leave Waterloo, Ontario.

Blackberry tells the story of the former corporate giant’s rise and fall as they pioneered the way people interact through their phones and created the sparks of screen addiction that continued to be ignited in the coming years. The film starts by showing the company’s beginnings, which director Matt Johnson has related to his own experience of making movies coming out of university. It all began with kid genius Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel), whose work got him a contract with General Motors in his final year, allowing him to drop out two months before he was supposed to graduate. He started Research in Motion with his childhood friend Doug Fregin (Matt Johnson) where, together, they began to pioneer the BlackBerry. Things change when the company bring in Jim Balsille (Glenn Howerton), a cutthroat Harvard business alumnus who has the economic know-how to make things happen. From there, the company quickly skyrockets. But, in order to keep up with the competition and tightening finances, Balsillie throws the company into jeopardy, creating evermore tension amidst the already incompatible colleagues of Research in Motion.

The film continues Matt Johnson’s documentary, ‘found footage’ style but also shows his natural growth as a filmmaker with a more refined look and scripted lines. Johnson gets great performances out of Howerton and Baruchel. Both bring their more rehearsed Hollywood style to this improvised Canadian method which, despite clashing at times, remains entertaining and still creates the moments of comedy gold that make Johnson’s work so intriguing. Their constant use of improv makes this such a naturally energetic film that flies with the wit of Sorkin yet is grounded by more realistic language.

The pacing of BlackBerry is one of its greatest strengths as Johnson and his editor, Curt Lobb, have continually gotten better at creating a tight runtime for their films. Unlike Johnson’s other work, this film operated from a set script, ensuring that all the filmed material was necessary. Then, just as any great Hollywood film, Lobb worked furiously to cut that down to the absolute essentials. In Blackberry, Johnson helps you understand how drastically different his characters’ personalities are through scenes that are both critical to the plot and their characterization. We understand very quickly how much of a business titan that Jim tries to be, Mike’s insecurity and genius and Doug’s fraternity energy and fun-loving personality that ultimately creates a rift that grows larger as the film goes on.

The film succeeds mostly with its comedy, which is stellar in the first act and, by the second act, as you get to understand the characters. The third act does lean into the more dramatic side of the film, and it does really become derivative of something like The Social Network but impresses, nonetheless. The fall of the company is swift and doesn’t have the dramatic punch that could have had as Johnson and his writing partner Matt Miller are still developing their style.

BlackBerry thrives when it focuses on the differences between people working for the same goal. As soon as Jim joins the company, the culture is instantly shifted as he tries to ‘Alpha Dog’ the BlackBerry to dominate the phone game. While he succeeds for a time, what holds him back are his other ambitions. He doesn’t truly care about the product (or, at least, not nearly as much as Mike). Meanwhile, in the industry chaos, Doug mourns the loss of the boy’s hangout club that they had, where they got to nerd out about movies, video games and the newest trends of the internet and go home with a decent paycheque. Jim’s ambitions changes all of that and it serves well as the backdrop for the fallout between Doug and the rest of the company. (So, maybe the fun-loving nice guy does win, assuming he’s an engineering genius who makes friends with the right people and cashes out at the right time?)

Are we happy? This film doesn’t really get into that in the same way that other business dramas do but I think the end of BlackBerry concludes that these guys weren’t satisfied, despite their wealth and extraordinary accomplishments. That’s maybe the ultimate tragedy for guys like Jim. Wealth is never enough and, for Mike, making the second-best phone in the rise of the cellphone age was not good enough. After all, to Mike, “good enough is the enemy of humanity”.

Blackberry is available in theatres on Friday, May 12th, 2023.

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