Producers: Niv Finchman, Matthew Miller, Fraser Ashand and Kevin Krist Director: Matt Johnson Screenplay: Matt Johnson and Matthew Miller Cast: Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton, Matt Johnson, Rich Sommer, Michael Ironside, Martin Donovan, Michelle Giroux, Sungwon Cho, Mark Critch, Saul Rubinek and Cary Elwes Distributor: IFC Films
The up-and-down workings of the communications business are engagingly illustrated by Matt Johnson’s lively dissection of the rise and fall of the rise and fall of the BlackBerry, the early mobile phone phenomenon that was hugely successful from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s but ultimately fell victim to the Apple iphone introduced in 2007. Based on the 2015 book, “Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry” by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff and cast as a comedy with dramatic overtones, it simplifies a complex story, but what’s left is a fascinating tale of a bunch of would-be entrepreneurs undone not just by competition but by a mixture of egotism, naiveté and sheer greed.
The film begins in 1996, when Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Johnson), co-founders of Research in Motion, a struggling tech startup in Waterloo, Ontario (a place name with appropriately doom-laden implications), bring their idea for a device called PocketLink—a combination mobile phone/emailer/pager–to Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), an executive at an investment film. Balsillie is initially unimpressed by the mismatched duo—nerdy genius Lazaridis and scruffy dude Fregin—but when he’s canned by his boss (Martin Donovan) for insubordination, he approaches them to become the CEO of their frat-boyish team if they’ll give him a major stake in its profits. He even puts some of his own money into the outfit to keep it afloat.
Then Jim browbeats Lazaridis into rushing a prototype of his device for presentation to the Bell Atlantic board headed by skeptical John Woodman (Saul Rubinek), who’s impressed by Mike’s innovative solution to an interconnectivity problem that had stymied his own tech experts. Over the course of the next few years years RIM grows into an industry juggernaut, with the rechristened BlackBerry dominating what develops into the smartphone market until Steve Jobs introduces Apple’s entry, an event shown here in archival footage.
The movie follows the transformation of the company culture as success changes things. Balsillie grows even more peremptory and dictatorial over time, resorting to increasingly shady tactics as he staves off would-be takeovers from the likes of Palm’s Carl Yankowski (Cary Elwes) and entices executives from other firms to join BlackBerry. His ambitions become increasingly grandiose—owning a hockey team is but one of his obsessions. And he delegates the responsibility for herding the originally sophomoric ways of the tech team into cowed docility by hiring a take-no-prisoners COO, Charles Purdy (Michael Ironside), whose drill-sergeant manner reduces everyone to muted obedience.
The new atmosphere is anathema to Doug, who sees it as the antithesis of the ethos on which RIM was based; there are some poignant moments as, a virtual cast-off, he watches Mike drive off with Jim to business meetings while he’s left behind as an embarrassment and his morale-boosting staff movie nights are cancelled. Lazaridis, meanwhile, remains the perfectionist he’s shown to be at the beginning, when he insists on fixing a buzzing intercom in Jim’s office, almost to the very end, when he finally compromises by consenting (unwisely, as it proves) to outsourcing the production of a new BlackBerry overseas. But by then he’s developed into a well-dressed, nicely coiffed image of the tech mogul, almost preternaturally confident in his ability to innovate against rivals like Jobs while retaining his product’s special character (in particular, the “click” it emits when characters are struck). When he can’t find a way to counter the public’s turn to Apple, he’s devastated.
The supporting cast is fine down the line, with veterans like Rubinek, Ironside, Elwes and Donovan making the most of their brief appearances. Johnson nicely conveys Doug’s escalating disappointment as he watches Mike and their company slipping away from his vision for it, and Baruchel expertly embodies Lazaridis’ geeky character, personal sheepishness and single-mindedness, along with his feeling of betrayal when the SEC comes calling and he learns of Jim’s machinations. But the dominant performance is Howerton’s. He portrays Balsillie as a man possessed, a terrifying tyrant who bulldozes his way through all opposition and resorts to the most desperate measures to achieve his ends. It’s actually a one-note turn, but so physically authoritative that it sweeps away criticism as effectively as Balsillie’s gamesmanship apparently did responsibility for his actions (a closing card informs us that he emerged from the BlackBerry debacle wealthy and unpunished).
Johnson and his collaborators—cinematographer Jared Robb, editor Curt Lobb and composer Jay McCarrol, all of whom worked with him on the 2016 faux documentary “Operation Avalanche,” about the Apollo 11 moon landing as staged conspiracy—bring a sense of verisimilitude and urgency to the film, using swift pacing and ragged visuals, as well as archival clips, to keep the adrenaline flowing in what’s essentially a period corporate thriller. Adam Belanger’s production design and Hanna Puley’s costumes add to a convincing 2000s look.
The Blackberry brand might no longer possess the clout it once did, but it provides the fodder for an absorbing cautionary tale about the perils of modern capitalism. Can Atari be far behind?