Canadian indie filmmaker Matt Johnson crafts an offbeat drama about the creation of a since-slain mobile phone giant.
When the very first iPhone was unveiled in January 2007, it was the technological equivalent of crossing the Rubicon. Nothing was the same after Steve Jobs revealed his plan to combine the touch-screen capabilities of the ubiquitous iPod with a mobile phone, and 15 years later, Apple claimed the majority of the US smartphone market, despite consistently having the most expensive handsets out of any provider. But before Apple, there was another fruit-based titan of the smart phone industry, who finally get their dues in Matt Johnson’s offbeat comedy.
When we meet tech experts Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Matt Johnson), they’re pitching a new phone to disinterested corporate bod Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton). The idea sounds simple by modern standards: put a computer in the consumer’s pocket. No one really thinks it’s possible – not least because Mike and Doug don’t exactly have the killer instinct when it comes to business. Jim eventually comes on board, sensing an opportunity (and fired from his previous job due to his, uh, uncooperative attitude) and handles the business side while Mike concentrates on the tech.
There’s no shortage of media reckoning with the technological boom of the 90s/00s, which arguably begin with David Fincher’s beloved Facebook drama The Social Network back in 2010. Since then there’s been two films about Steve Jobs, a series about the rise and fall of WeWork, a series about Theranos Girlboss Elizabeth Holmes, and even a clutch of films about various whistleblowers who used the internet and social media (Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, now Reality Winner) to expose the truth about government malpractice. Working in such a saturated corner of the biopic market, it’s wise that Johnson brings to the subject material his idiosyncratic filmmaking style, using a multi-cam set-up allowing for a more DIY style, and veering away from venerating the characters through displaying the flaws which were both features and bugs.
At moments it feels like BlackBerry is a parody of the genre – a moment which purports the phone was named after a breakfast stan on Lazaridis’ shirt is particularly cheeky – but the intention is definitely still to shine a light on an untold part of Canadian history, which played a major role in how we communicate today. It’s perhaps ironic that so much of worldwide communication has been dictated by a group of geeks who preferred to be shut in dark rooms hosting LAN parties or watching They Live for the hundredth time, but Johnson has a keen affection for his subjects, imbuing the material with humour and snappy pacing which keeps the audience on their toes.
Howerton is the stand-out performer as the bullish Balsillie, a shark in a fish pond, who is able to take BlackBerry from a single man cave in Waterloo, Ontario to a major player in North American communications in less than a decade. The contrast between Balsillie’s ruthless business mind and the awkward Lazaridis and Fregin is entertaining, and avoids the ‘difficult genius’ trope which haunts the subgenre by emphasising that BlackBerry was very much a team effort, and the individualism that followed later is part of the reason it failed.
For anyone that remembers how popular the BlackBerry was at the height of its fame, it’s a fun little jaunt down memory lane, but the film also highlights the problem with so much modern technology and the people involved in creating it: a lack of interest in the longevity or craft of their product. BlackBerry’s switch to cheaper manufacturing and continued failure to innovate, combined with the fracturing of their leadership due to financial greed and some dodgy stock optioning, puts the writing on the wall.
Published 5 Mar 2023
By Ashley Clark
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