Matt Johnson takes us on a high-energy ride through the rise and spectacular fall of the first smartphone



Dir: Matt Johnson. Canada. 2023. 121mins

Remember the BlackBerry? Of course you do. It was the first true smartphone and at one point, around 2009, it controlled 45% of the US cellphone market. It was also, in the words of one of the many voices we hear in this engaging, hi-energy rampage through the boom and bust of the Canadian tech company behind the device, “the phone people had before they had an iPhone”.

Johnson and co-writer Matthew Miller turn the story of RIM’s brisk rise and meteoric fall into a kind of breathless tech fever dream

That familiarity, combined with the magnetic pull of the ’did this prehistoric stuff happen so recently?’ factor (one that BlackBerry shares with The Social Network) made this a film just waiting to happen. And the 2015 book ‘Losing the Signal’ – a tell-all investigation into what went so right and so wrong for Research in Motion (RIM), the company that launched the then-revolutionary combo of phone and keyboard – provides some eminently adaptable source material.

Johnson and co-writer Matthew Miller turn the story of RIM’s brisk rise and meteoric fall into a kind of breathless tech fever dream, a relentless but addictive downbeat human comedy about the struggle to stay on top in a fast-moving industry. Previously something of an indie slacker-comedy and mockumentary specialist, Canadian director Johnson (Operation Avalanche) should achieve international visibility with a film that was picked up by Paramount for the bulk of worldwide rights just prior to its Berlin competition debut (North America, the Middle East, Scandinavia and airline rights were previously sold by co-financier XYZ Films).

Audiences in the film’s core 30-60 age bracket will likely have David Fincher’s 2010 drama about the rise of Facebook — and perhaps also Danny Boyle’s 2015 Apple drama Steve Jobs — in mind, and BlackBerry doesn’t suffer by comparison. The big difference is that BlackBerry filters out the white noise to focus entirely on the workplace. We have no idea if the film’s two central characters, tech genius and RIM co-founder Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and the company’s hard-nosed, borderline psychotic business head, Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), are in relationships with anyone. We see Balsillie at home alone for a few brief seconds; the rest of the action takes place in the workshop and boardrooms.

It’s tempting to think that Lazaridis’ defining tic – fiddling with cheaply made devices to reduce their infuriating background hiss – was inspired by the writers’ quest for narrative reduction. One consequence of that decluttering is that it highlights the two central performances. The story progresses from Balsillie’s arrival in 1996 at what was then a 14-man operation based in a room above a bagel shop in Waterloo, Ontario, to the 2018 implosion of the tech giant, now named BlackBerry, that RIM had swollen into. As it does, these two utterly different men — the first an absorbed visionary, the second a swaggering bully — become twin aspects of the same demonic character. It’s a transition signalled perhaps too blatantly by the Gordon Gekko hairstyle the increasingly wired and tired Laziridis sports in later scenes.

The director himself plays Doug Fregin, the bandana wearing co-founder of RIM and best friend to Lazaridis, who embodies the geeky post-hippy culture of internet and communications start-ups before the suits moved in to ruin the fun. The film’s most overtly comic character, Doug feels like a rehash of the hapless goofball created by Johnson and Jay McCarrol for their Canadian TV mockumentary series Nirvanna The Band The Show, but he’s also the most obvious illustration of a quality BlackBerry has even in its most acidic moments: affection for its weak and fallible characters.

It doesn’t take a graduate in business studies (many of whom are now fed the BlackBerry parabola by their tutors as a classic cautionary tale) to realise that these weak, fallible characters are all men. It’s not until close to the end that a significant female character appears – and she’s an investigator from the Securities and Exchange Commission, her role (in the film at least) to tell the guys to wake up and admit it’s all gone toxic.

Cinematographer Jared Raab infuses his claustrophobia-inducing handheld camerawork with the lead characters’ manic energy as they rush to close deals with Verizon or, in later scenes, prevent AT&T from cozying up to Steve Jobs and laying out a network red carpet for what an increasingly haunted Laziridis calls “an over-designed toy”: the iPhone. Flashback scenes with a Betamax remind us of just how obsessed users were with their ‘crackberries’, as they were jokingly dubbed, while a high-octane soundtrack of songs by bands from Joy Division to The Strokes tap into the spirit of the age.

Production companies: Rhombus Media, Zapruder Films

International sales: XYZ Films

Producers: Niv Fichman, Matthew Miller, Fraser Ash, Kevin Krikst

Screenplay: Matt Johnson and Matthew Miller, based on the book ‘Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of Blackberry’ by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff

Cinematography: Jared Raab

Production design: Adam Belanger

Editing: Curt Lobb

Main cast: Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton, Matt Johnson, Cary Elwes, Saul Rubinek, Michael Ironside