Nowadays its hard to imagine going a whole day without a cellphone. Similar to the ID in one’s wallet, one does not dare leave home without it. While many credit the likes of Steve Jobs and Apple for making mobile devices an essential part of our daily lives, it was the Canadian company Research In Motion (RIM) who first set the blueprint that others would follow. Makers of the BlackBerry phone, a product so popular and addictive that user jokingly referred to it as “CrackBerry,” there was a period of time when the world was RIM’s for the taking. In Matt Johnson’s brilliant comedy-drama BlackBerry, the meteoric rise and fall of one of the most influential cellphones in history is brought to vivid life.
Once considered an unstoppable giant in the industry, it was not a sling shot that took Blackberry down but ego and stubbornness. What made the downfall of the devices so fascinating was the unlikely partnership that lifted the product up in the first place. RIM co-founders and engineering savants Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Douglas Fregin (Matt Johnson) could not have envisioned the journey their careers would take when the brash businessman Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) first strolled into their office.
Figuring out how to put email in the palm of people’s hands, without overwhelming data providers, RIM’s Blackberry phone was revolutionary for its time. Seeing the financial potential in the firm’s work, Balsillie used his shrewd business tactics to not only join Research In Motion as the company’s CEO, but also secure key deals that made the phone a massive hit with both corporations and average consumers. While Balsillie and Lazaridis’ unlikely partnership made them leaders in the industry and had competitors such as Palm Pilot CEO Carl Yankowski (Cary Elwes) eager to drink from their lucrative fountain, their success gave them a false sense of security. Like the hare who had a massive lead over the tortoise, they stop running well before the race was over.
Adapting Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s novel Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, and putting his own amusing spin on the story, Johnson’s film expertly captures how both Balsillie and Lazaridis became blinded by success and their own perceived greatness. For Balsillie, this was apparent in not only the questionable ways he expedited the growth of the company, but also in how his aspirations to own an NHL team distracted him from the challenges facing RIM. Lazaridis’ grave misstep was not taking his competition, specifically Apple’s IPhone, seriously. A believer in products made with quality, Lazaridis felt that his superior tech and BlackBerry’s beloved QWERTY keypad was all that people cared about. He viewed the IPhone as a toy, but was unaware it would be the device that everyone wanted to play with.
Filled with a youthful and invigorating energy that harkens closer to 2010’s The Social Network than 2015’s Steve Jobs, Johnson masterfully constructs a film that packs one heck of a comedic punch. While BlackBerry takes a more lighthearted approach to this tale of innovation and corporate greed, the film nails its dramatic beats as well. Johnson’s film is able to straddle both tones because he shows a genuine affection for his central characters. Balsillie is portrayed as a bully who is obsessed with hockey, he is constantly listening to Toronto Maple Leaf games in his car, yet the viewer does not hate him. One understands how his cutthroat style was essential in helping the phone become a global phenomenon.
It would have been easy to simply portray Balsillie as a ruthless villain, however, Glenn Howerton’s magnificent turn as the quick-tempered CEO is full of rich layers. While Howerton has some of the best comedic lines in the film, it is Jay Baruchel’s brilliant performance as Lazaridis that is the secret sauce to this delicious recipe. Balancing the character’s inability to assert himself forcefully with his desire to make RIM a more structured organization, which ultimately causes a riff in the friendship with Fregin, Baruchel ensures that Lazaridis’ journey resonates with viewers.
The fact that Johnson manages to humanize Lazaridis, and Balsillie to a certain extent, speaks to his talents as a filmmaker. Continually raising the bar with each film, he crafts a distinctly Canadian story with universal appeal. An entertaining snapshot of one of the most influential pieces of technology, BlackBerry is one of the year’s best films.