Thursday, May 11, 2023


 by Rob DiCristino

It’s kind of like Air, but angrier and more Canadian.

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of,” says Blackberry CEO Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) as he listens to Steve Jobs’ 2007 announcement of a new hybrid mobile device that Apple is calling the “iPhone.” “It uses more data than five thousand Blackberries,” Mike continues. “Who would want a phone without a keyboard?” The aging gearhead seems to be in disbelief of Jobs’ audacity; he’s got some nerve, Mike thinks, trying to edge in on a product — hell, an entire market — that Mike and his team invented back in the mid ‘90s. Who does mobile devices better than Blackberry (known at the time as Research in Motion), the company that first took advantage of untapped internet technologies to bring beepers and cell phones out of the 20th century and into the future? The iPhone is just a giant screen? No trackpad? Third party applications? No network in the world has nearly enough bandwidth to handle it, anyway. It’ll never work. There’s no way. RIM would have thought of it. It can’t work, right? Can it?
Hang on. Let’s backtrack Blackberry to those first RIM offices in Waterloo, Ontario. Mike and his partner, Doug (Matt Johnson, who also co-writes and directs) are running a ramshackle playhouse for engineers that hangs precariously on the edge of the computer industry. When they’re not speedrunning Doom or debating Star Trek in dial-up chat rooms, the boys are pitching manufacturing executives on the Pocket Link, a prototype phone/computer hybrid that fits in the palm of your hand. One of these executives is Jim Balsillie (a distractingly bald Glenn Howerton), a Harvard MBA whose tenuous hold on ethical business practices has recently lost him his job. Desperate for redemption, Balsillie buys a slice of RIM, comes on as co-CEO, and begins muscling his way into the telecom intelligentsia until the re-dubbed “Blackberry” is the only name in business communication. It’s not five years before RIM is hiring engineers away from Google and AT&T to work on what Lazaridis insists is the best phone in the world.

And it is for a while, at least. The story of Blackberry (co-written by Matthew Miller and based on Jacquie McNish’s book Losing the Signal) is the story of genius tempered by hubris, of inspiration hamstrung by ignorance. Mike and Doug were visionaries, to be sure, but they lacked the business savvy and operational discipline required to succeed on their own. They needed hard-nosed sharks like Balsillie and eventual COO Charles Purdy (the ever-imposing Michael Ironside) to choke off the movie nights and pinball breaks that foster a delightful corporate culture but offer little in the way of profitable growth. But those sharks shouldn’t be roaming free, either: Drunk on success, Balsillie soon becomes distracted by a scheme to buy an NHL team while Purdy strongarms Mike into doubling profits by moving production to China (where faulty products “are made by engineers who don’t care,” Mike once said). Perhaps fewer cooks in the kitchen would have produced a better stew, a company fit and focused enough to outfox Apple.
But Blackberry is also the story of history’s middle children, those innovators whose contributions have gone overlooked simply because they led to bigger, bolder revolutions from those who came afterward. Apple surely doesn’t develop the iPhone without first studying the Blackberry, but that’s little consolation to RIM when their market share drops to a stunning 0% just a year after the iPhone’s launch. It must have been frustrating. It must have been heartbreaking. Maybe there was nothing Mike and his team could have done to stop it. Maybe Steve Jobs was just better. Smarter. More inspired and charismatic. But is that better or worse? As we watch him tank a Verizon pitch — a disastrous affair in which he hints at a touchscreen Blackberry that no one else at RIM has any plans to develop — we can almost see Mike’s soul leave his body. In the blink of an eye, he’s behind the curve, just another dinosaur lacking the foresight of his strongest competitor. Where did it all go wrong? What could he have done differently?
The sharply-made Blackberry stands out in a crowded field of “Rise and Fall” narratives because it never offers simple answers to these complex questions or forces cheap conflicts between starchy heroes and conniving villains. Its characters are painfully human, following advice that doesn’t hold water and celebrating victories before the games are won. Though Howerton is joyfully frozen in “Dennis Reynolds Has Contained His Rage For As Long As Possible” mode for the duration, he also offers us just enough room to sympathize with a man who can only express himself in hostile takeovers. Baruchel’s understated performance is threatened by his elaborate hairpieces (a pair of shock-white rigs that could have sunk him from the start), but Mike’s quiet dignity soon shines through and makes his ultimate fall all the more devastating. And while many movies like Blackberry try to force a unifying lesson, Johnson’s revels in the absurd: There are no rules. No justice. Sometimes, you can do everything right and still fail.

Blackberry hits select theaters on May 12th.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed the movie. I don't think Jay Baruchel totally works as an older tech entrepreneur at first, but i grew to like him as the movie went on