Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry is a brilliantly directed and acted telling of that Canadian tech giant’s rise and fall.
PLOT: The rise and fall of BlackBerry through the eyes of its founder and creator Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and co-CEO Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) as they go from being upstarts to dominating the smartphone market, and eventually, getting rendered obsolete by the rise of iPhone.
REVIEW: Does anyone remember the term “crackberry?” That was a popular nickname for the BlackBerry when it first hit the market around 1999, as it was the first cell phone that allowed for effective emailing via your mobile device. It had its own dedicated server that meant people, for the first time, could send and receive emails from their phones – quickly. Soon they added web browsing, cameras and more, all of which seemed like science fiction when the company started pitching the product in the mid-nineties. For a long time, they were the great Canadian success story, with them based in Waterloo, Ontario, only for it all to eventually come crashing down.
Given the company’s Canadian history, it’s appropriate that the story of BlackBerry’s rise and fall is told by a Canadian writer-director Matt Johnson (The Dirties, Operation Avalanche), but those thinking this will be standard fare are in for a bit of surprise. Truly, Johnson has made one of the best English-Canadian films in a long time and a tech-based biopic that compares favourably to the definitive movie of the genre, The Social Network.
Like that movie, Johnson’s made BlackBerry effective because he never loses sight of the human drama at the film’s heart while depicting the company’s rise and fall with a documentarian’s eye. While many will call it a movie about BlackBerry, it’s a lot more universal than that in how it depicts how the intoxicating aspects of success and money can often make you blind to the moral compromises you’ve made on the way.
As BlackBerry creator Mike Lazaridis, Jay Baruchel has perhaps the greatest role of his career. Seeing him here as the grey-haired, socially inept, but brilliant Lazaridis will forever erase the memories of that gawky kid we all loved on Undeclared and in Judd Apatow movies. He vanishes into the role, with him able to convincingly evoke how Lazaridis could go from a guy so socially inept and clumsy that he loses a BlackBerry demo on the way to a meeting to a magnate who’s willing to sell out his principals to stay an industry leader. He’s both hero and anti-hero, with director Matt Johnson himself playing his number two and confidant, Douglas Fregin, who’s essentially his conscience.
In a more straightforward movie, Glenn Howerton would be playing the movie’s bad guy, with his Jim Balsillie, a calculating shark with an insatiable lust for money and power. But, Howerton does an excellent job humanizing him, showing that there’s more to him than just greed and that his need to be recognized isn’t all that different from what drives Lazaridis, or any of us for that matter. What makes him a “bad guy” is his willingness to lie, cheat and steal, but even at his worst, he never really loses our sympathy.
Indeed, Johnson has made the BlackBerry saga into something of an epic. It’s also proudly Canadian to boot, with it shot in Waterloo and featuring a who’s who of Canadian character actors, including the great Michael Ironside, Saul Rubinek, as well as imports like Martin Donovan, Cary Elwes and more.
It’s also a great time capsule, particularly for anyone who grew up in the nineties and 2000s. The people behind BlackBerry have done an excellent job evoking the era, with Johnson including a terrific soundtrack of tunes from the period, and almost documentary-like attention to detail, right down to the Ninja Turtles wallet Freglin carries around. While the budget is probably a fraction of what David Fincher had to make The Social Network or Danny Boyle had to make Steve Jobs, the fact that Johnson, using a more punk rock, ragged approach, is able to make something that can easily stand alongside those two movies is pretty miraculous. Johnson showed a lot of promise with his disturbing school shooting movie, The Dirties and his conspiracy flick, Operation Avalanche, but this is something else. It’s the rare Canadian movie that has a real chance of breaking out internationally, and Johnson is a director to keep an eye on. It’s up there with Air as one of the best movies I’ve seen recently.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/blackberry-review/