Blackberry (Canada, 2023)

August 31, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Blackberry Poster

Blackberry is a classic rags-to-riches-to-rags story; a feel-good tale that transforms into a meditation on arrogance and neglect. Director Matt Johnson, working from a screenplay he co-wrote with producer Matthew Millar, brings a light touch to a story that, approached differently, could be seen as either a tragedy or a farce. Blackberry serves as a cautionary tale about stars (regardless of their field) only being as good as their latest hit and reminds viewers that the greatest enemy of cutting-edge progress is complacency.

Most people over the age of 20 remember the ascendency of the Blackberry smartphone, a device that was once as much a status symbol as it was a useful tool. I never had one. Although Blackberry ruled the roost during the early 2000s (from roughly 2002 until 2008), I was content to use my lightweight, unobtrusive flip-phone until I transitioned to an early iPhone. Around 2005, however, the Blackberry brand was ubiquitous in the cell phone industry and everyone who was anyone seemingly had one. There were tales of Barak Obama using his on the campaign trail during 2007 and 2008.

Blackberry doesn’t seek to be a comprehensive chronicle of the rise and fall of RIM (Research in Motion) and its most famous product. Instead, it focuses on three specific time frames: the development of the first model of Blackberry (the late 1990s), a technical/sales surge used to beat back a hostile takeover bid in 2003, and the competition the ensued with Apple once Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone. Many events and characters have been fictionalized to make for a better story but the skeletal trajectory accurately reflects the facts. And, although it’s a completely different kettle of fish from either, parts echo aspects of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and The Big Short.  

The movie opens with an introduction to RIM co-founders Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Matt Johnson) as they (ineptly) pitch their latest device, an interactive pager, to businessman Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton). Balsillie is initially unimpressed and rushes the pair out the door but, when he is later fired from his job, he seeks them out with an offer to become a financial partner and co-CEO. Recognizing that he lacks the requisite business know-how to make RIM successful, Mike makes a counter-offer that Jim accepts. Once he is on-board, his straightforward, no-nonsense approach, which contrasts with the laid-back atmosphere enjoyed by the current engineers, pays dividends.

In 2003, RIM and its BlackBerry products have become so popular that the company is ripe for a takeover. Palm CEO Carl Yankowski (Cary Elwes) informs Jim of his plan. Rather than partnering with Carl in merging the two companies, Jim decides to fight back by overselling the number of phones that the Bell Atlantic network can handle, then hiring top engineers from around the world to solve the issue. The resolution not only allows RIM to avoid the hostile takeover but gives them an even stronger position in the market – one that isn’t challenged until Apple unveils the iPhone in 2007.  Mike’s tepid reaction to the upstart competitor paves the way for Blackberry’s undoing. By the time Mike recognizes the iPhone as a legitimate threat, Blackberry is in a poor position to fight back and an investigation by the SEC further hampers the company’s ability to staunch the bleeding.

Enough of Blackberry is true to make the viewer appreciate the dynamics that characterize the company’s life cycle and the manner in which dramatic successes cause the leaders to lose focus. Once the pressure to succeed has been relieved, stagnation sets in and, at that point, the decay becomes irreversible. Innovations in the tech world are only good until another company tops them – something that rarely takes long. The methodology employed by Mike to circumvent the telcom network restrictions – something considered groundbreaking in the early 2000s – quickly became outdated. Mike’s arrogant assertion that Apple would never be able to do something similar becomes his undoing.

The performances by the three lead actors lead to effective characterizations of a trio of very different individuals. Jay Baruchel, who is best known for his work in the Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen universe, captures the inherent awkwardness of a tech genius forced to be the public face of an emerging product. Glenn Howerton imbues Jim Balsillie with a Type A focus that prefers bullying to discussion. And Matt Johnson’s Doug Fregin is as laid-back and supportive as they come. (In real life, Fregin was by far the most financially successful of the three, having liquidated most of his Blackberry holdings before the company went into a nosedive.) Recognizable faces Michael Ironside, Martin Donovan, and Cary Elwes fill supporting roles.

Like Air, another 2023 release detailing the rocky development of an iconic product, Blackberry pulls back the curtain to give the viewers a warts-and-all perspective of what went on behind the scenes. Unlike Air, however, the movie doesn’t end with its characters enjoying the fruits of their hard labors. Like a rom-com that spends the first half getting the characters together before showing the ugliness that sometimes happens when “happily ever after” becomes impossible, Blackberry depicts the unraveling that occurred at the back end. It’s a fascinating motion picture that gives life to Paul Harvey’s famous phrase: “Now for the rest of the story…”

Blackberry (Canada, 2023)

Run Time: 2:01
U.S. Home Release Date: 2023-08-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1