BlackBerry: “Men will no longer commute, they will communicate”
The BlackBerry was a revolutionary invention when it was released to the general public in the 1990s. An early edition of the smartphone, it excelled in technology and brought communication to the world like never before. Initially devised by Canadian entrepreneurs Mike Lazaridis and Douglas Fregin as part of their company Research in Motion, the device once controlled 45% of all cell phone usage in the market.
Today, it is zero.
The meteoric rise and thunderous downfall of the BlackBerry is the central focus of the new film by Canadian director Matt Johnson in the aptly titled BlackBerry. Johnson wears many hats in this biographical movie as he takes a featured role as Douglas Fregin, the co-founder of Research in Motion, who had a vision of the future of communication. Johnson is best known for the mockumentary series Nirvanna the Band the Show and for directing the thriller Operation Avalanche in 2016.
However, Canadian comedian Jay Baruchel is taking center stage in this drama as Mike Lazaridis. Lazaridis worked hard throughout the 1980s to sell his ideas to major technology companies in North America, but his business sense is next to nil. Seemingly always taken advantage of for his nerdy disposition, Lazaridis has grand ideas about wireless fidelity and tapping into the then-unknown environment, what we comfortably rely on today as “wifi.” A pioneer in a time when no one was listening, Lazaridis had the know-how but lacked in delivering the presentation skills to force software CEOs to tap into the future of their own existing products.
In walks, Jim Balsillie, scarily played to perfection by American talent Glenn Howerton. Howerton cut his teeth in comedic television as a co-creator and star of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia but has seldom been given a chance to show his range as a dramatic actor. Here, his take on the balding no-nonsense investor Balsillie is nothing short of menacing. In an awkward discussion with potential clients Fregin and Lazaridis, Balsillie initially dismisses their ideas before leaving his job to accept a co-CEO role at Research in Motion.
Research in Motion was in dire straits before the BlackBerry came around. The company mainly consisted of the two founding partners and a team full of intelligent wonks who would rather host movie nights in the office than work hard on their products to be commercially successful. All they had to show for their efforts was a prototype that didn’t do Lazaridis and Fregin’s ideas justice, but there was light at the end of the tunnel with the hiring of Balsillie onto the team.
For starters, Balsillie came in and instantly changed the dynamics of the fledgling company. Gone were the days of brainstorming activities as he ushered in a more corporate environment. Similar to the mentality at play in Glengarry Glen Ross with the iconic quote, “Coffee is for closers,” so too was the case for the employees of Research in Motion under the new leadership of Jim Balsillie. Sharing a CEO role alongside Lazaridis, Balsillie pushed his contemporaries out of the way and made the BlackBerry into his own image. Sleek and user-friendly in its design, Balsillie made deals with companies on the side that helped to launch the next great idea. But were they all above board?
Propelling a device like the BlackBerry into the hands of the purchasing public was just half the battle. Research in Motion created a singular handheld gadget that made it possible to e-mail, text, and call others for the first time in history. Business boomed right out of the gate, but the threat of hostile takeovers from Palm Pilot and others loomed large. The BlackBerry replaced pagers because it was a cellular device with the internet, making it perfect for self-reliance.
Many companies started replicating Reach in Motion’s ideas and forced everyone from the top down to invent upgraded ways to keep people interested in owning and using the BlackBerry. But it was too much demand for a startup company to endure, which made it difficult in times of substantial growth.
BlackBerry details the story of the device’s development trajectory and the mismanagement in great detail from the 1980s through the late 2000s. At its height, the BlackBerry was a tool that international leaders like President Obama used, but companies like Apple and their introduction of the iPhone made it obsolete. A movie about a cell phone might seem somewhat trivial; however, under Johnson’s careful hand is a film bursting with stunning performances and a race-against-the-clock thriller.
Glenn Howerton is a standout in a sea of talent in BlackBerry, primarily because his character might actually be the devil incarnate. Balsillie makes no effort to make friends with those around him, showing no emotions even when the BlackBerry is taking off in sales. He becomes filthy rich overnight, choosing to bid for Hockey teams and ignoring the pleas of his leadership team to scale down production in hopes of fixing glitches that the phone would be well-known for later in its lifespan. Howerton’s take on Balsillie’s behavior during this era is filled with intimidation as he is one step away from having a brain aneurysm every time he speaks.
Rightfully so, Baruchel’s Mike “bad with money” Lazaridis is the epitome of geek. Baruchel ditches his comedic roots to play a shadow of a man, filled with innovative spirit but trampled on by the cocks of the walk in his life like Balsillie. Losing his grip on the reality he once coveted, Baruchel’s Lazaridis ages before our eyes as the story of the BlackBerry jumps decades.
Matt Johnson takes a quintessential biopic formula and makes his audience understand that good ideas can falter under the weight of men who can’t see the sky beyond the clouds. The only disruption in an otherwise flawless film is the ill-fitted wigs worn by the actors every time the movie flashes forward. This is easily ignored by Baruchel and Howerton, given the performances of their careers, and the contention between their characters is felt with every piece of dialogue. The ensemble cast includes a host of Canadian and English performers like Cary Elwes, Saul Rubinek, and Michael Ironside, told through the lens of a Canadian filmmaker bursting to be noticed.
BlackBerry might not shatter box office records, but it will linger as a movie about the greatness that could have been obtained, only to stumble due to ego and manipulation.