Tech years are like dog years. Less than a decade and a half has passed since the early 2010 sheyday of the BlackBerry smartphone. But in the accelerated world of technology, the once coveted accessory of any self-respecting business bigshot or self-promoting celebrity (Paris Hilton used to carry five of them at a time) now might as well be an ancient relic.
By any standard, the BlackBerry story is a wild ride – going from a prototype cobbled together from bits of a pocket calculator to a product so addictive that it was nicknamed the CrackBerry; from a share of the US mobile phone market that was at one point estimated at about 40% to virtual oblivion in the space of just a few years. Based on the 2015 book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, the film, directed by Matt Johnson (The Dirties), is a boisterous account of the boom-and-bust, crash-and-burn trajectory of one of the world’s first smartphones and the chaotic collection of Canadian nerds that created it.
At first glance, for all its dry humour and nervy energy, BlackBerry seems like just another addition to an increasingly overcrowded subgenre: the consumer product development drama – or “buy-opic”, if you will. Films such as Air (the story of Nike Air Jordans), Tetris (the interminable contractual negotiations to secure the rights to the video game), The Social Network (the Facebook phenomenon) and The Beanie Bubble (the understuffed plush-toy craze) work on the assumption that, as consumers, we view our purchasing choices as an extension of our personalities. These buy-opics are not just movies about marketing successes or feature-length product-placement opportunities, they are a snapshot of a wider collective identity. We are what we buy. Or at least what we aspire to buy. And that’s where this picture diverges dramatically from the expected narrative: it’s safe to say that nobody who watches it will leave the cinema and buy a BlackBerry. It’s a film, ultimately, about failure. And immediately that makes it a far more intriguing proposition than all the boardroom backslapping of a movie such as Air.
The BlackBerry story starts in Waterloo, Ontario. Childhood friends Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (played by director Johnson, who also co-wrote the picture) run a scrappy technology company called Research In Motion (RIM) that manufactures moderately successful pagers and modems. The cinematography – all erratic crash-zooms and lurching, skewed framing – gets the measure of RIM. This is not, in any way, a slick organisation. Johnson draws parallels with the maverick creative energy of indie cinema, casting rising Toronto film-makers as the socially challenged tech geeks on RIM’s staff.
As the film tells it, the company has been spectacularly mismanaged, getting bruised by defaulted deals with bigger, ballsier and way more cynical players in the industry (like much in the film, including the offbeat eccentricity of the key characters, the parlous state of company finances has been rather exaggerated for dramatic purposes). But RIM is on the brink of something big.
Not that you would know it from Lazaridis’s attempt to pitch his new invention to the distracted executive of a potential partner company. In a muttered monotone directed at the carpet, he attempts to sell the idea of a phone that can also send and receive emails. Time grinds to a halt; even the exuberant Fregin glazes over. But something connects with the other man in the room: Jim Balsillie (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia star Glenn Howerton) is a corporate vulture with the scent of fresh meat. He swoops into the RIM offices a few days later. Lazaridis and Fregin grudgingly accept that a shark-eyed predator in a suit is exactly what the company needs.
The comic potential of the collision of personalities is thoroughly mined: Lazaridis the diffident visionary; Fregin the extrovert oddball; Balsillie the driven, hyperaggressive alpha male. Howerton, in particular, is a revelation, playing the tightly wound Balsillie as a head-butt waiting to happen. The discord between them is initially productive – it’s the engine that powers BlackBerry to success, after all. But, the film suggests, the personality clash was also a distraction, weakening the company at a crucial moment – the launch of Apple’s iPhone.
We have the benefit of hindsight, of course, but even so, it’s hard to watch the final 30 minutes of the film without screaming at the screen and wondering how the smartest guys in Waterloo, Ontario, could have been so incredibly dumb.