Are we in a sortof mini Golden Era for brilliant, funny, and emotional biopics about game-changing innovations? From the Nike Air Jordan film Air to Apple’s espionage thriller on the launch of Tetris, we’re seeing movies that are crafting entertaining drama while celebrating genius and business creativity. And now joining this impressive group of movies is Blackberry, Matt Johnson’s film about the one-time juggernaut of the smartphone market that helped coin the phrase “crackberry.” Back in my days working in government, my job was to manage the distribution of thousands of Blackberry devices to agents all around the world. I’ve seen so many of the things I still get shellshocked by it. This movie brought back a lot of memories, both good and bad.
The film itself is a real treat, though, chronicling the rise and pitiful fall of Research in Motion (or RIM), the upstart Canadian company based out of Waterloo that created the Blackberry. Johnson, who directed, co-wrote the script, and also has a supporting role as RIM co-founder Douglas Fregin, does the thing that these tech-based movies often forget: we won’t care about the tech if we don’t care about the people. From the beginning, we are invested in the story of Fregin, who dresses like an extra from Dodgeball, and his pal, Mike Lazaridis, played by a Jay Baruchel like you’ve never seen before. With graying hair and pronounced social anxiety, he’s like if the dorky character he’s been playing since Undeclared grew up and only got more shy, but also much smarter.
RIM’s humble beginnings aren’t presented as too much different from Apple. It looks like it’s being run out of a garage, staffed by a bunch of nerds who mostly sit around playing DOOM and watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is not a professional operation, at least not until Jim Balsillie (It’s Always Sunny’s Glenn Howerton), a ruthless businessman with the oily pitch of a used car salesman, jams his way into a co-CEO position. While he gives RIM the credibility and powerful presence they need to survive in a cutthroat marketplace, Balsille is a headache in other ways.
Blackberry is a reminder of just how dominate the little device, with its QWERTY keyboard innovation that gave it the familiar “click-clack” sound its users loved, had in the mid-90s into the early 2000s. Blackberry was truly cutting edge stuff, using its own server so users could send email, make phone calls, and surf the web with lightning speed. At its height, Blackberry would control 43% of the market, besting other brands like the Palm Pilot (remember those???), and making its geeky band of creators a boatload of money. Balsille became so rich he actually contemplated buying an NHL hockey team for a while. And as for Lazaridis…well, it’s hard to keep from getting a swelled ego when everyone keeps telling you how smart you are.
The timing of Blackberry is crucial to its success. We watch it knowing this wonderful Cinderella story has a shelf life, and it’ll expire around 2007 with Apple’s reveal of the IPhone. To the film’s credit, it’s as interesting during the rise of Blackberry as during its demise. Johnson is good at managing all of the combustible elements within the company. It was always an oil & water match by bringing in Balsille, and that was always going to blow up eventually. But there’s also lingering tension between Lazaridis and Fregin, with the latter feeling like his contributions are being ignored. He’s like the Steve Wozniak of this Canadian underdog story, telling truths and bringing heart when others only want to think about financial reward.
Johnson’s admiration for what RIM was able to accomplish is also obvious. A key scene early on is also one of the best, where Jim, having forced a pitch meeting to Verizon way ahead of schedule, stumbles in his presention. Enter Mike, who, totally on-the-fly, presents a prototype Blackberry out of what appears to be Gameboy parts and pieces of old calculators. He wows the Verizon folks and a beautiful partnership is born, one that would soon have Oprah Winfrey unveiling the Blackberry to her screaming audience who can’t believe this thing that sends email AND is a cell phone!
Johnson has crafted a top notch tech movie that sits on equal footing alongside Jobs and The Social Network, telling a personal story that feels gigantic for the technology that once consumed our lives. With a supporting cast of Cary Elwes, Saul Rubinek, and Michael Ironside, the film surrounds Baruchel and Howerton with a solid ensemble of veteran actors, while cinematographer Jared Raab’s handheld cam provides a documentary feel. The Blackberry was eventually obliterated by Apple who simply came up with better ideas that resonated with users. But Johnson has less to fear that Blackberry will meet such a fate. As far as the definitive story of the Blackberry goes, this one will be tough to beat.
Blackerry opens in theaters on May 12th.