The Plot: Canada, 1996. Mike (Jay Baruchel) and Doug (Matt Johnson) run a modest tech company out of a disorganised office with a bunch of similar nerds who regularly gather for movie nights. They hit upon the discovery that there’s unused bandwidth on the telephone network which could be used to support a device that’s capable of making more than just phone calls. It needs finessing though and this is where bullish executive Jim (Glenn Howerton) comes in, shaking things up and straightening out the slacker mentality in the office. Soon enough, they have a product that can send and receive emails and fits in the palm of the hand: the BlackBerry. However, as success grows so does Government scrutiny of the company’s financial affairs…
The Verdict: Following hot on the jumping heels of Air and the financial shenanigans of Dumb Money comes another corporate comedy/drama based on a true story. BlackBerry charts the stratospheric rise of the titular device – the world’s first smartphone – as it took a chunk out of the market share. It had its competitors and telephone companies sweating in their boardrooms as they tried to figure out how to increase network bandwidth to support more devices. Meanwhile, the company behind the device was crunching the data and compressing it too. But as Gravity once told us, what goes up must come down – crashing down, that is. At the peak of its success, BlackBerry had a 45% market share and over the years went from that to, well, 0%. From industry hero to zero then, just like that. It flew too close to the sun and melted away to nothing, a victim of its own astonishing success.
Although it’s based on the book Losing The Signal by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, the opening title states that BlackBerry is a fictionalisation of these events. In other words, the real-life events based in negotiating boardrooms and engineers squirrelled away in offices were too dry to depict accurately. Leave that to notable documentary filmmakers like Errol Morris and Alex Gibney to find the fine details. A fictionalised dramatisation needs to be juicier and more dramatic, without losing the audience amidst the technical jargon and constant office politics going on in the background and foreground. It’s a poetic licence trick that has worked before this year and director Matt Johnson (who also plays the scruffy, headband-wearing, put-upon co-owner Doug) taps into that by making his film a low-key, ticking-clock thriller of sorts while also dialing in the drama and the comedy to entertaining effect. His script with Matthew Miller is high on shouty swearing which makes the stakes ever higher, while also playing up the Faustian element of inviting more than one devil to run the company.
This is where the excellent Glenn Howerton comes in, seizing his role as Jim with relish as essentially a Wall Street-type shark who is all predatory eyes and closing deals at whatever the cost. He’s in marked contrast to everyone else at the company, but he’s also what the company needs. Someone who can walk the walk and talk the talk amidst the bulls and bears. That’s not to say that Mike and Doug are ineffectual as the co-founders. Jay Baruchel, in a variety of striking hairstyles to mark the passage of time, gives a nervy performance that suggests that Mike knows exactly what needs to be done to achieve success. He just needs to reach out and grab it, while Doug follows close behind like a loyal puppy. It’s a wonderful trio of performances, pushing at the limits of friendship and where it intersects with those all important business needs. Later on, veteran screen heavy Michael Ironside brings some further energy in a Rottweiler of a performance.
BlackBerry didn’t perform well in its native country, which is surprising considering that it successfully handles many spinning devices, interesting sub-plots and makes the world of phone networking more glamorous than it appears. The sad reality is that the world of tech moves frighteningly fast and if you can’t keep up then you’ll be left behind in the dust. In the end though, it’s not really about the first smartphone and its place now as a museum piece. It works because of how well the characters are written, how sharply they are portrayed by the actors and how focused and taut Johnson’s direction is. Answer the call and enjoy digesting this entertaining, talky but bittersweet BlackBerry.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Hero to Zero
BlackBerry (Canada / 15A / 120 mins)
In short: From hero to zero
Directed by Matt Johnson. Mp>Starring Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton, Matt Johnson, Martin Donovan, Michael Ironside.