BlackBerry (2023)

Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry is, as text at its beginning states, a ‘fictionalisation’, but ‘inspired by real events and real people’. Adapted by Johnson and Matthew Miller from Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s 2015 book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, it opens with a 1996 meeting between three people that will change all of their lives, and the world, forever, but more importantly, this sequence – a comedy of errors – carefully defines who these characters are. 

On their way to the meeting, the car in which two of those people, Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Johnson), are driving overtakes a horse and carriage, in a moment that encapsulates and prefigures the technological leap forward that is about to come. Mike and Doug are co-founders of small tech startup Research In Motion (RIM) in Waterloo, Ontario. Computer engineers operating on the margins of telecommunications, these two long-term best friends are full-on geeks at a time when geeks had not yet ascended into broad cultural acceptance – and they have just arrived at the headquarters of Sutherland-Schultz (their initials, as Doug keeps pointing out, are “literally SS”) in the hope of securing financial backing for their latest idea, the PocketLink (“a pager, a cellphone and an e-mail machine all in one thing”). Their pitch could make or break the heavily indebted and insolvent RIM.

As Mike and Doug wait in an office decorated with masks, Johnson offers an economic glimpse of these men’s qualities and their flaws. With the pressure on and the seconds ticking away before the fateful interview, Mike is suddenly distracted by a low buzzing noise coming from an intercom on the desk, and takes it upon himself to open it up and, using only a paperclip, to fix it then and there, while grumbling about the carelessness of Chinese manufacturing. Described in an old newspaper clipping as ‘a dropout boy genius’, Mike is a painstaking perfectionist, with a real flair for hands-on work. He is also a collection of nervous tics and social gaucheness with more than a minor touch of OCD, while Doug, a good-natured if arrested manchild, sees no problem in wearing a red headband and Doom T-shirt even to a meeting as momentous as this. “When you grow up, your heart dies,” Doug says to Mike in the office, expressly citing the line from John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club (1985) and laying out both his own Peter Pan-like ethos and Mike’s future. These two may be good at engineering and computer science, but it is clear that they are both singularly ill-suited to sell either themselves or their products, or to engage in any kind of corporate negotiation. 

Meanwhile, the man to whom they are pitching, Harvard Business School graduate and low-level executive Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), is himself distracted by an important high-end pitch that he has to make later that day in the presence of his boss (Martin Donovan), and only half listens to Mike and Doug’s bumbling presentation. Jim is an obvious contrast to Mike and Doug: confident and collected, extremely ambitious and aggressive, near sociopathic in his double-dealing machinations, and coming with obvious anger management issues. Jim dismisses their pitch, later describing it as “the worst” he has ever seen in his life – but when his own boardroom presentation, which he hopes will lead to his promotion, instead gets him fired for insubordination, he turns to Mike and Doug, offering to market and sell their (renamed) idea for them in exchange for being made a co-CEO at RIM. The rest is history.

Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton)

Like David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) and Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs (2015) before it (indeed file footage here gives the real Jobs a cameo), Johnson’s film ostensibly chronicles the emergence and evolution of a game-changing digital product – the once innovative BlackBerry line of interactive handheld pagers and smartphones – but keeps this potentially dry material engaging through a focus on the main players, warts and all. At the polar ends of BlackBerry are Doug, who guilelessly keeps his workforce happy with gaming sessions, film nights and endless geeky camaraderie, and Jim, who only ever cares about the bottom line, his own personal advancement and (bizarrely) hockey. Neither of these two characters, one an eternal child, the other an eternal adult, changes in any way, even as circumstances change around them – but during critical episodes which the film traces over the next 12 years, Mike, who from the outset was less personable and more serious than Doug, grows into a rôle of ruthless, reckless corporatism. The arrival of iPhone on the scene will lead to Blackberry’s eventual downfall – but so will Mike’s immense hubris, and his willingness to sacrifice both his friend, and the perfectionism that once made everything that he did stand out, all in the interests of pushing out more saleable items that are just ‘good enough’ (and ‘good enough’, as Mike himself says, “is the enemy of humanity”). 

Blessed with a witty screenplay and great performances all around, BlackBerry is a very funny study of the clash between geek and corporate mindsets, between childish wonder and adult responsibility, between ethics and profit, in an industry where all of these must ultimately, if uncomfortably, coexist, with often comic consequences. Yet it is a tragedy too, tracing the meteoric rise and fall both of a device, and of Mike and Jim, where the foibles and blind spots of people prove as damaging as the vagaries of technological change. From the start, we know where the narrative is going and how it will end, because that is a part of history – but it is the fictionalised friction between these entrepreneurs which makes Johnson’s film a thrilling joy from start to finish, as, by some alchemical magic, the conflicting, dysfunctional ideologies of Mike, Doug and Jim triangulate for a spell to transform telecommunications forever.

Here the narrative throughline is provided by Mike’s unconventional coming of age, as this naïve, nerdy dreamer gradually grows up to become not just a man but – much worse – ‘the Man’, breaking his heart and selling his soul along the way. Entering a Faustian contract with Jim from the moment he agrees to hire him as co-CEO, Mike puts away the childish things that he once enjoyed with Doug, and fully embraces the humanity-destroying compromise demanded by the callous, cutthroat world which Jim inhabits. So in the end BlackBerry is a cautionary tale, exposing capitalism as a game where nobody can ever keep winning forever (even if the losers here still ended up billionaires – a bleak message in itself), but where a little bit of Doug’s kindness and consideration for others can go a long way, bringing its own secret rewards. And while the real events that inspired the film are now in the past, its moral is no less relevant to today’s corporate leaders in digital communications and social media.

strap: Matt Johnson’s comic docudrama traces the smartphone’s early years and coming of age, and the flawed adolescents behind its rise and fall

© Anton Bitel