REVIEW: ‘BlackBerry’

Go. To the movie theater. And see this. Immediately.

May 12, 2023

The new film BlackBerry, a docudrama about the development and the destruction of the titular device, is many things, almost all of them wonderful. It’s a superb portrait of the clash between entrepreneurship and corporate gamesmanship—and it’s so good and so original in its handling of this tricky topic that by the end, it deserves consideration as one of the best movies ever made about business (not that there’s a lot of competition in this category). It’s also a portrait of the clash between the natty marketing guys and the brilliant slob idea men, making it one of the most delightful such depictions since Revenge of the Nerds back in 1984.

BlackBerry is set in Waterloo, Ontario, which is where the hardscrabble little company called Research in Motion invented the device in 1996. And Canada is a central character in BlackBerry even though there’s no didactic material about the wonders of the Great White North. The extraordinary cowriter/director/costar of this remarkable film, Matt Johnson, offers us an indelible rendering of his country’s bifurcated nature—how its potential greatness is often subsumed in a modesty that seems to rise from an existential sense of inferiority in relation to the behemoth south of its border.

The question that preoccupies the people responsible for the BlackBerry—maybe the one outdated device in history that people look back on with a sense of passion and regret—is whether they can compete in the larger marketplace against ruthless American companies whose staffs possess greater social and technical skills than they have.

Jay Baruchel, a slight comic actor from Montreal you’ve seen a million times over the past 20 years, plays Mike Lazaridis, a brilliant and wildly awkward fix-it guy who seems terrified of other people and almost incapable of having an ordinary conversation—and yet has a will of iron about how to maintain his own and his product’s integrity.

Non-Canadian Glenn Howerton, one of the stars of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, is mesmerizing as Jim Balsillie, a raging volcano of ambition and fury with a Harvard Business School degree who latches onto Mike and provides him with real-world savvy. But it’s the unscrupulousness that grips Jim whenever he's feeling desperate that helps create the crisis that brings the BlackBerry down. Well, that and the iPhone.

Then there’s Matt Johnson. I’ve never ever seen him before as an actor, and I haven’t even heard of the web series or the two movies he cowrote and directed before this one. I’m going to search them out now, because this guy is awesome. He’s charming and vivid as Doug Feiglin, Mike’s early partner and closest friend, who serves as the movie’s conscience and its emotional center. And man, can this guy write and direct. The movie is visually off-kilter and always interesting to look at, and surprisingly tension-filled even though we kind of know the ending.

More important, the screenplay he coauthored with Matthew Miller almost never does anything obvious, and it compresses and simplifies a very complicated business story in a way that doesn’t seem to distort the actual facts of the case. To prove the point, the real Jim Balsillie—who hardly comes off well here—said, "They're taking an element of truth, who I am, and they're playing with it. I'm aggressive. I'm competitive. I'm ambitious. I own that."

BlackBerry is so good, in fact, that it might represent the high-water mark of Canadian cinema. Now what, you may ask, is Canadian cinema? To be sure, a lot of stuff has been made in Canada over the past 50 years, owing to a favorable tax structure for TV and movies so long as Canadians are employed making it. But a movie in which Toronto doubles for New York is not really a Canadian movie per se. By Canadian cinema, I mean movies made by Canadians, about Canadians, and set in Canada.

To my mind, there are four Canadian auteurs. The most garlanded right now is Sarah Polley, a onetime child actress who has made documentaries and fictional films of uncommon delicacy and whose latest, Women Talking, won her an Oscar for best screenplay this year. Another is Denys Arcand, a Québécois who makes talky, intellectually minded films in French. His masterpiece, which you should find and savor, is called The Decline and Fall of the American Empire.

The director with the longest and most interesting career is David Cronenberg, who has been writing and directing suspense and horror movies about the dangers of technology since the late 1970s. His best picture is probably The Fly with Jeff Goldblum, but he also made a brilliant virtual-reality picture called eXistenZ in 1999 that got swamped and forgotten in the wake of its flashier competitor, The Matrix, and is among the overlooked gems of its decade. (Michael Ironside, who was the villain in Cronenberg’s breakthrough film Scanners more than 40 years ago, is fantastic here as a tough old guy Jim brings into the company to force some semblance of professionalism on the unruly techies.)

All three of them are very, very interesting, but their films are often recondite and odd. BlackBerry is hardly blockbuster Hollywood fare, but it’s both compelling and satisfying in a manner that signifies it’s some kind of a classic. And though it feels as do-it-yourself as the BlackBerry prototype we see emerge from a kid’s speak-and-spell machine near the beginning, BlackBerry never loses sight of the fact that it is telling the story of how a device changed the world and then, almost instantly, found itself piled onto the scrapheap of history.

Published under: Movie Reviews , Technology