A film review by Craig J. Koban July 4, 2023


2023, R, 121 mins.

Jay Baruchel as Mike Lazaridis  /  Glenn Howerton as Jim Balsillie  /  Matt Johnson as Doug  /  Michael Ironside as Purdy  /  Rich Sommer as Paul  /  Cary Elwes as Yankowski  /  Saul Rubinek as Woodman  /  SungWon Cho as Ritchie  /  Michelle Giroux as Dara  /  Mark Critch as Bettman  /  Ben Petrie as Allan  /  Ethan Eng as Ethan

Directed by Matt Johnson  /  Written by Johnson and Matthew Miller, based on the book by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff

Back in the day, I absolutely loved my BlackBerry Torch.  

It was my first smart phone.  I thought it was the coolest thing since sliced bread.  

It had that large screen that you could flip up with your thumb to reveal a physical keyboard underneath.  And those clickable tactile buttons!  I dug those the most.  For a person that made a relatively late transition into smart phones, I thought this device was a game changer.  The power of a computer in my pocket.  At the time, I honestly thought nothing could top it.   

Annnnnnnd then I got my first iPhone...and I never picked up a BlackBerry again.   

Very few consumer products have achieved such unfathomable success and then came crashing down and burning quite like the BlackBerry.  At its zenith, these phones were so ubiquitous that they occupied nearly 50 per cent of the cell phone market.  

Now?  Zero per cent.  

Let that settle in for a second.  

How on earth did this happen?  

The new biographical dramedy BlackBerry concerns the rise and fall of this once behemoth product and the Canadian company behind it, Research in Motion (RIM), which was founded modestly in 1984 by two lifelong friends and tech geeks in Mike Lazaridis and Doug Fregin.  In the mid-90s they had a vision for a new device that would radically change the face of communications with their first BlackBerry prototype, the "Pocket-Link."  They pitched their then avant-garde product to businessman Jim Balsillie, which was a total failure as far as pitches go.  However, Balsillie saw their unique vision and offered to go into business with the struggling lads, but only if he could be made co-CEO of RIM and receive a third of the company.  Lazaridis and Fregin agreed.  What transpired then changed the face of telecommunications forever.  It is stunningly ironic, though, that companies like Apple would later duplicate and imitate what a BlackBerry could do, but made it hipper, sexier, and more next-level cutting edge.  When the iPhone launched in 2007 it was the beginning of the end for RIM.   

Directed with great cinéma vérité flair and a darkly humorous edge by Matt Johnson (basing his film on the Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff book LOSING THE SIGNAL: THE UNTOLD STORY BEHIND THE EXTRAORDINARY RISE AND SPECTACULAR FALL OF BLACKBERRY), BLACKBERRY not only does a bravura job of immersing viewers in the history behind this product and the company behind it, but it also serves as a penetrating cautionary tale of business hubris and how some products are never too big too fail.  It's a film that deserves some very worthy comparisons to the recently released TETRIS and AIR, with the former delving into the behind-the-scenes business politics behind the inception of one of the greatest video games ever and the latter honing in on the microcosm of one corporation's office culture and those inside it that were trying to snag a big game client to sell their new shoe.  BlackBerry's popularity and influence cannot be understated in the smartphone industry.  There was a time when you couldn't walk by a stranger and see them feverously gripping their "CrackBerries."  BLACKBERRY celebrates the meteoric successes of RIM, but it also serves as a sobering reminder that any product - no matter how huge - can fail when the makers behind it fail to adapt and evolve in the industry (among many other things)



Johnson's film covers a period between the mid-90s to the late 2000s and opens in 1996, during which time we meet Mike Lazaridis (a never better Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Matt Johnson), two Canucks that are struggling to keep RIM open and viable.  They've come up with their core BlackBerry concept, which is revolutionary, but the pair are categorically awful at the art of the sale.  When they try to pitch it to Jim Balsillie (a rancorous Glenn Howerton), he seems instantly dismissive and barely gives the men the time of day.  He does, though, see massive promise with this device as a money maker, so he decides to counter-pitch himself as a co-CEO for RIM, rightfully acknowledging that Mike and Doug will never get this product off the ground with their sheepish personalities.  Mike seems more willing to partner with Jim than Doug, but they all mutually decide to unite forces, and in the early stages of BLACKBERRY we see Jim completely upend the casual, bohemian lifestyle that dominates the nerd staff at RIM.  In his mind, this team needs to make a workable prototype as soon as possible, or risk becoming laughably obsolete when the competition beats them at the same task.   

Mike remains deeply concerned over quality control issues with his creation and can't stomach the idea of his baby being pitched in anything but perfect form (in an early telling scene, he scrupulously takes apart an office intercom and fixes the annoying hum that comes out of it, which he attributes to poor Chinese build quality and something that he doesn't want the soon-to-be BlackBerry to have).  One of the film's best sequences involves flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants Mike and Jim trying to sell the prototype to a big-time Verizon exec (Saul Rubinek).  He frankly tells them that what they're doing with the BlackBerry is technically impossible without crashing established cell networks.  Mike very quickly tells him that he and Doug have figured out a way to have large numbers of BlackBerries on the same network without crashing them at all.  The executive gets very curious at this stage and starts playing with the prototype.  "Try typing with your thumbs," Mike politely instructs him, to which he does with a wide-eyed fascination.  The first CrackBerry addict is born.

From there, RIM became an overnight success and one of biggest tech giants of the world.  Plus, you know that a product has officially arrived and taken off when even Oprah Winfrey is peddling it on her show for free.  Soon, seemingly everyone has a BlackBerry, and with this new marketplace dominance, Mike and Jim start to dream even bigger (and riskier) with their company.  Mike becomes more ruthlessly corporate minded, which annoys his BFF in Doug, whereas Jim starts to make some rather shady backdoor deals with company money, which starts to attract the eyes of the FCC and threatens to destroy everything.  To make matters worse, Jim wants even more BlackBerries sold to avoid a hostile takeover by the CEO of Palm Pilot (remember those?), and with more BlackBerries means more strain on the network, and even Mike and Doug can't deal with these levels of unprecedented traffic, leading to large-scale blackouts.  One of the final nails in RIM's coffin is the historic day when Steve Jobs took to his stage and unveiled the first iPhone to the market.  It was like the DVD to RIM's Laser Disc. The iPhone did everything a BlackBerry did, but with a big screen and just one button.  It was sleeker and cooler.  In a tense scene, you can sense the complete defeat of the RIM employees when they witness the unveiling of this new marvel, but Mike remains stubbornly committed to his invention.  In his mind, no one will ever want a phone without a physical keyboard...it's stupid...right?  

How utterly wrong he was.   

The downfall of the BlackBerry and RIM is well documented, but BLACKBERRY is on routinely solid ground when it comes to deep diving into how one competitor's product introduction - alongside Balsillie's illegal usage of company funds - essentially destroyed them.  That, and Mike's complete unwillingness to get with the times and change hurt too.  Like Blockbuster Video before them, RIM couldn't see the trees because the forest was in the way.  Blackbuster died because they failed to identify what a seismic change streaming would lead to in their industry and RIM stubbornly held on to their belief that no one would want a buttonless phone when they're so used to the clicky-click of their device's keyboards.  This is the central message of BLACKBERRY: If you become a trailblazer quickly and hopelessly fail to take newcomers seriously, then you're dead in the water.  Mike is constantly shown as a genius in BLACKBERRY (and he was, to be fair), but as his stature evolves up the RIM corporate ladder, he grows too pathetically myopic and is in a state of pathetic denial.  He deserves credit for being a pioneer in this field, but he was short-sighted in dismissing the iPhone as a dumb fad product.  His partner in Doug was perhaps the smartest man in the room in 2007 and quickly sold his RIM shares when they were worth billions; he quietly became one of the wealthiest men in Canada, if not the world.  

Jim's actions didn't help either, and from dicey attempts to buy an NHL hockey team to taking unethical methods to lure talent away from other corporations with fraudulent stock promises, the FCC came sniffing in.  That, alongside the Apple launch, was the true beginning of the end for RIM, and the company would be in crisis management mode from that point onward.  In a moment of sad irony, Mike overlooks the shipment of his new BlackBerry Storms, which have come from...Chinese factories.  He obviously fears the worst, opens up a random box, and notices a buzzing noise (not too unlike the same one from that aforementioned intercom from years ago) coming from the device after powering it up.  He opens another up.  Same thing.  The Storm's bug-riddled launch was a notorious disaster.  Mike had become his own worst enemy.  Baruchel has always been a hit or miss actor for me, sometimes coming off as almost too idiosyncratically distracting for his own good in comedic roles.  But here, as Mike, he's allowed to thoroughly play against type and inhabit a shy and timid mouse of a man that later morphs into a tunnel-visioned corporate drone.  It might be his most full-bodied performance of his career, which is matched by Howerton's toweringly ferocious performance as the scenery chewing Balsillie, who's presented here as a multiple F-bomb dropping shark that doesn't care who he verbally eviscerates to get to the top.  Balsillie might have been a toxic SOB to work under, but the film highlights that without his business tenacity, then the BlackBerry might never have taken off.     

But, wow, how this device crashed.  In 2011, 85 million people had a BlackBerry.  Five years later, that number dropped by 75 per cent.  By late 2016, RIM announced they would cease making BlackBerries.  It was, for all intents and purposes, over.  Today, RIM now specializes in cyber security.  At the film's core, BLACKBERRY is at its strongest when it shows the contrasting personalities that dominated the ascension of the BlackBerry, showing the wolf that is Jim taking the sheep that are Mike and Doug and making history together.  Johnson crafts an endlessly fascinating portrait of RIM's office culture as well, which is filled to the rim with socially stunted dweebs that made BlackBerries so desirable, but they were arguably smarter than their bosses in seeing the writing on the wall offered up by Apple's new sensation.  RIM was supremely guilty of favoring quick profit over true innovation, and the capitalist system that Mike finds himself embroiled in becomes more gruesomely corrupt by the day.  In a wise move, Johnson films BLACKBERRY with a spontaneously loose, handheld documentary-style with quick pans, dollies, and zooms to make viewers feel like eyewitnesses to an enormous triumph giving way to an enormous train wreck.  This gives the film a sense of stark historical immediacy and authenticity.  You really feel like you're there with these various power players.

The only thing that holds back BLACKBERRY from achieving true greatness is that it sometimes feels a tad too truncated for its own good, especially in the later sections, when scenes involving the FCC and Mike and Jim's partnership eroding are rushing towards the finish line instead of feeling properly nurtured.  BLACKBERRY is one of those rare films that goes by at such a juggernaut pace that I could have easily handled another 20-30 minutes tacked on to its already meaty 120 minutes to flesh out the ten years of history it was covering (apparently, the CBC will be airing an extended version of this film over three nights in the fall, which begs the question as to why we couldn't just get a longer film in the first place).  Still, BLACKBERRY crackles with so much limitless intrigue and is so kinetically watchable that it's one of the rare films from 2023 that I immediately want to re-watch (and will most likely hold up to repeated viewings over the years).  As a business saga of how the smartest business and tech men at a company also became the dumbest by getting too high on their own CrackBerry supply, BLACKBERRY is excitingly told, brilliantly acted and shockingly funny.  It reminds us all that there was once a generation-defining product that most of the world had in their hands and pockets...that later became an obsolete paper weight.

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