‘BlackBerry’ Review

To expand upon my quick thoughts in the video, BlackBerry is a Canadian indie biographical drama directed by Matt Johnson (Operation Avalanche) from a screenplay written by Johnson and Matthew Miller (Surviving Crooked Lake). Featuring Jay Baruchel, Johnson, Glenn Howerton, Rich Sommer, Michael Ironside, Martin Donovan, Michelle Giroux, SungWon Cho, Saul Rubinek, and Cary Elwes; the film is an adaptation of Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry. The story follows Mike Lazaridis, Douglas Fregin, and Jim Balsillie as they take the BlackBerry line of mobile phones from a niche business product to the most used cellular device in the world.

In Waterloo, Ontario Research In Motion (RIM) cofounders Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Douglas Fregin (Matt Johnson) drive to Sutherland-Schultz Ltd. for a meeting with the Executive Vice-President Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) to pitch his company PocketLink, their idea for a new cellular device. During the meeting, Balsillie ignores their pitch as he is more concerned with his company’s potential upcoming merger. When Fregin states that their device would be a pager, cell phone, and email device all in one, the idea piques Balsillie’s interest. He then states that his company cannot make the phone and leaves for another meeting, telling the duo to think of a better name for the device on his way out.

Later that evening, Lazaridis and Fregin returned to RIM and let their staff know that the meeting did not go well. To cheer them up, Fregin gives the employees the rest of the day off. While the office watches Raiders of the Lost Ark Lazaridis tries to think of a new name for their device. Meanwhile, Balsillie is fired from Sutherland-Schultz Ltd. for ignoring his boss’ wishes during the merger meeting. While packing his office, he notices the display for PocketLink is still there and decides to visit RIM. The trio has a lunch meeting, and Balsillie states that he will invest in RIM and help them market and sell their phone as long as they give him a percentage of the company and make him CEO.

The only thing better than a legal drama is an entrepreneurship drama. A movie that follows the founding of a major company is bound to draw in viewers. Ever since The Social Network (2010) was released to critical and financial acclaim, audiences have flocked to the theater to see what other businesses were built on the foundation of sneaky politics and juicy drama. I’m old enough to remember when BlackBerry phones were very popular. I even had a teammate in college who continued to use them after their popularity waned. The founding of BlackBerry is not a story I would have ever thought would make such a riveting and engaging film.

Matt Johnson is known for his indie features, but BlackBerry feels bigger than anything he has directed before. While the movie still carries that indie vibe, there are elements of Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999), The Social Network (2010), and even The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). There are corporate takeover attempts, technological advancements, strained friendships, and shady stock deals. Johnson’s direction is superb with his fly-on-the-wall style of shooting, giving the movie the ambiance of a mockumentary – minus the one-on-one interview segments. The camera picks up on characters candidly, focusing on the body language and facial expressions that may otherwise go unnoticed.

The acting talent presented in the feature is also top-notch. Johnson pulls double duty as he also plays Douglas Fregin. Fregin is portrayed as an intelligent man with a very youthful disposition. Your typical geek, he wears glasses, makes Star Wars references, and has a Ninja Turtles wallet. Johnson’s depiction of Fregin is bound to draw comparisons to Steve Wozniak. Jay Baruchel turns in one of the best performances of his career as Mike Lazaridis. Baruchel is comfortable playing shy, timid characters, which helps him easily slip into the Lazardis’ proverbial shoes. Lazaridis is an introverted genius and basically a doormat for most of the film. As the story progresses, we see some of Balsillie’s tendencies start to rub off on him, and he becomes more assertive. Speaking of Balsillie, Glenn Howerton totally chews up the scenery as the duplicitous hockey-loving businessman. Howerton is known for his comedic performances, but this role allows him to show off his stellar acting chops. Balsillie is shown to be a focused, business savvy, ambitious, and quick-tempered man. Rarely do we see him looking happy, but without these traits, he would have never helped BlackBerry reach the heights that it did.

Part of the reason the film plays so well is that the dialogue is impeccable. Johnson and Miller produced a screenplay that felt like it was drafted by a screenwriter with decades in the business. The pacing is carefully calculated with no scene dragging on longer than it should. The characters feel relatable to anyone who has wanted more out of life, felt like a pushover, or hated their job. Johnson and Miller also deliver this package in just under two hours, which feels like the perfect runtime. As the movie came to a close, I did not crave more or feel I didn’t see enough. Very few films leave the viewer with this kind of satisfaction.

Matt Johnson delivers a well-acted, well-directed, well-crafted story in his third directorial feature. Glenn Howerton and Jay Baruchel give awards-worthy performances in an award-worthy film. I give BlackBerry an Excellent 9.5/10. In my humble opinion, if the Academy allowed English-speaking films in their Best International Feature category, then BlackBerry would be a guaranteed nomination and potential win for Canada. Hopefully, it’s still in the conversation for other categories come awards season.

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