REVIEW – “BlackBerry”: A Sharp-Eyed Glimpse into Canada’s Silicon Valley

BLACKBERRY - Courtesy of IFC Films (1) (1)
Glenn Howerton as “Jim Balsillie” in Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release

Who among us remembers their first cell phone? Depending on the generation, it could’ve been a bulky device requiring both hands to operate, a mini-computer that does everything, or something in the middle – a tactile device that challenged the very idea of two-way communication into the more commonplace notion we now take for granted. It was a tech marvel carrying humble beginnings and a later drastic downturn as immortalized by writer/director Matt Johnson (Operation Avalanche). His latest film, BlackBerry covers much ground in a tight span, saying a lot about the titular product and its popular draw, but so much more about the dark corners in business strategy converging with workplace culture. The two don’t always go hand in hand; in fact, any partnership will turn bitter and acrid. But a combination can still lead to something that forever changes the game. And much like what we saw earlier this year with Tetris, this film celebrates the heroes and the villain, along with what their work did for the growing public.

The sleepy community of Waterloo, Ontario always maintained a reputation as a leading innovator in indie tech. Leading the way in the late 90s was the firm Research in Motion, helmed by Mike Lazaridis (played here by Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Johnson). For a time, they’d just been known for developing smart modems and wireless communication devices for non-consumer markets. Their passion project had been to develop a handheld phone for carriers, with a Game Boy-like screen, which could utilize two-way messaging. Their knack was always more firsthand with the equipment, not in sales, or in pitching their product, tentatively named “PocketLink.” So, when attracting the attention of shark-like exec Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), first impressions run paltry. A shot of confidence inspires both sides to work together, with Jim jumping aboard as co-CEO, adopting the casual, “geek hive “atmosphere Mike and Doug instilled, and then later organizing into something more professional as the BlackBerry phone takes off like a rocket to winning sales, with competitors looking to swallow their weak stock options in one swoop.

Johnson, with co-writer Matthew Miller, doesn’t hover over the opulent side of this tale for long. Adapting from a bestselling biography by Sean Silcoff and Jacquie McNish, the tone later strikes a more serious spin as Mike and Doug soon learn how shrewd and ruthless the business world can be. Particularly when dealing with a boss whose methods turn borderline criminal, even to where the SEC and the NHL get involved on opposite tracks. Their script takes many smart misdirects, starting off in the false sense that we’re settling in for what would be a meager comedy, sans the Judd Apatow-like starch. It’s a straight and narrow approach, trickling down a cliffside road of despair without leaping off it face first.

The RiM team is quick to adopt new strategies, tough deadlines, and even tougher protocols from both corporate and those carrier partners, namely Verizon’s head honcho (ably portrayed by Saul Rubinek). This cast, they revel in the moment, and then some. Baruchel nails the timid nerd without a lick of savvy, his approach more with being a teammate in the crowd versus a valuable team leader, embracing camaraderie more over command. A concept Howerton absorbs like oxygen, taking it in with hard gulps and sharp talons. The Always Sunny star goes all-in for a career-defining performance, unlocking blazon fury that would’ve been otherwise unexpected from an actor best versed in comedy. He balances more than one strength to immortalize the icy, deliberate action of an exec taking every shortcut necessary to surpass unrealistic expectations.

The apparent contrast between the two, hard brass capitalist versus soft-shelled geek, wages quite the power struggle. No side is ever overthrown, merely thrown into the pit of fear. Whether mediating behind the camera or in front as Mike’s number two, Johnson finds endless variables to toy around, landing the humor as effectively as the heightening dramatics. His mind is always a couple of steps ahead of his co-stars, laying serious groundwork before it’s trodden. Or in Howerton’s case, decimated with steel boots. In no small light, this cast simply does not play around, unless it’s intentional. And when it’s not, maddening anarchy steps forth. That much is true with a late-arriving foil – a brutal, not-at-all foolish operations manager (a joyfully evil Michael Ironside).

Such a candid back and forth is that era in a nutshell, with Johnson quick to frame a ten-year stretch with all its highs and lows, its cold cynicism, and its killer honesty. Call it the Canadian equivalent to either The Office, The Social Network, or Silicon Valley. Any of these would apply and instantly make sense. To expose these business antics in a dusty, 16mm-like documentarian style is the smartest decision in Johnson’s playbook, paired with DP Jared Rabb. To then marry these frenetic, worn visuals with a broad litany of song drops that span the years, only further freezes those moments of rule-breaking deeper into history.

I had zero doubt about just how much of an accurate time capsule was being developed before my eyes. The result is still shocking to a delightful degree, immortalizing, celebrating, and grilling the pitfalls of workplace unity and creativity in a sphere where money talks and mindfulness walks. BlackBerry may be about a grand, chaotic chapter in the history of personal electronics. Not once does it look away from that idea, nor its ode to the heroes and villains responsible for developing a product both loved and scorned. Fueled perpetually by its range of emotions, the adventure Johnson drafts is one I could easily declare one of the year’s most significant, and most raucous. I’d board it again, even if I wouldn’t entirely trust the tech. (A-; 4/5)

Blackberry opens in select theaters May 12; rated R for language throughout; 119 minutes.