‘BlackBerry’ Taps Into Recent History of What Was a Slice of Our Future

Writer/director/actor Matt Johnson’s film recreates the rise of Research in Motion (the company’s original name) and the fall of the BlackBerry device as a game-changing mobile brand.

Via IFC Films
Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton in 'BlackBerry.' Via IFC Films

Futuristic telecommunication devices were popping up in movies and TV shows long before the actual invention of the cellphone. As the title sequence of the new movie “BlackBerry” attests, the flip-open communicators of “Star Trek” and the videocall screens from “2001” and “Blade Runner” predicted the accessible technology of our age. Yet what the legendary BlackBerry devices of the late ’90s and early aughts gave us was something less advanced but no less important: the pleasing feeling of typing with one’s thumbs.

Lest you doubt that statement, a scene in the movie’s last half-hour confirms this: the character of BlackBerry’s founder, Mike Lazaridis, tries to explain to the board of Verizon how the newly announced Apple iPhone will fail because what consumers like is to hear and feel the click of real keys as they write emails and texts. Satisfying typing aside, the scene plays like it sounds, a tragicomic display of hubris and stasis, with the tragedy side a bit stronger since we know how the story ends: the iPhone and similarly screen-sheathed phones take over the market quickly and decisively.

For much of its two-hour runtime, “BlackBerry” breezes by, recreating the rise of Research in Motion (the company’s original name) and the fall of the BlackBerry device as a game-changing mobile brand at a clip. With a three-act structure similar to Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for “Steve Jobs,” the film begins in 1996 when Mike and co-founder Doug Fregin meet businessman Jim Balsillie. Jim is merciless in demeanor and ruthless in practice, yet he’s exactly what the fledgling company needs as it seeks additional capital to expand its product line beyond modems. Of paramount importance is building a prototype of the founders’ phone-avec-keyboard idea, with scenes leading up to and during its presentation at a high-powered meeting crackling with nervous energy. 

Next up is 2003, with the company doing well until a PalmPilot executive threatens a hostile takeover if it doesn’t commit to a merger. In order to increase the company’s market share and stock price to avert the takeover, it has to sell more phones, which in turn means leveraging more data. It’s up to the engineers — including some not already working at the company — to find a solution, since the networks can’t support the increased demand.

All this may sound too techy and business-focused to make for riveting viewing, and yet the second act increases the stakes through its zippy editing and crackling soundtrack of alternative songs from acts like The Strokes and The White Stripes. It helps, too, that nearly every scene has a humorous bit of dialogue or camera zoom to offset its often tense tone. The cinéma verité style of filming, with objects, furniture, and architecture nearly always cluttering up shots or partially blocking the main focus, also adds to the sense of imbalance and excitement.

The movie begins to lose some of its veracity in its portrayal of when the company experienced service issues due to its quickly rising sales. Viewers will be hard-pressed to believe that so soon after a major data crash, the majority of the engineering team would be horsing around and generally just enjoying a party atmosphere. Blame it on writer/director/actor Matt Johnson’s attempt at collapsing the timeline of real events in order to keep the plot apace. 

Still, the movie recovers until we get to … 2007, which includes the scene of Mike explaining how the iPhone will bomb. By this point, the egos of co-CEOs Mike and Jim have ballooned, and the movie loses some of its punchy rhythm, despite sidelines involving the National Hockey League and investigations by the SEC.

As Mike and Jim, actors Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton play the yin and yang of their management style well, with Mike bumbling but brainy and Jim aggressive yet effective. Mr. Howerton, specifically, is a long way from his pretty-boy portrayal in the long-running show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” especially with Jim’s bald pate. Mr. Johnson has the unenviable task of both playing a key role (as co-founder Doug) and directing, yet he more than acquits himself in both respects.

“BlackBerry” ends with a short epilogue in 2008 that could be interpreted in several ways: as a damning assessment of relying on China for manufacturing and assembly; as an allegory of how if you want something done right, do it yourself; and as a portrait of an executive who’s alienated himself from his two closest associates in order to make the “best phone in the world.” For BlackBerry, it was a short-lived title, but don’t we all miss that keyboard from time to time?

The New York Sun

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