- Directed by Matt Johnson
- Written by Matt Johnson and Matthew Miller, based on the book Losing the Signal by Sean Silcoff and Jacquie McNish
- Starring Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton and Matt Johnson
- Classification N/A; 122 minutes
- Premiered Feb. 17 at the Berlinale; opens in Canadian theatres May 12
Almost overnight, the BlackBerry changed the way the world works. So it is fitting that the movie chronicling the rise and fall of the Canadian tech sensation should come from a director who has, not quite overnight but in a remarkably short amount of time, changed the way the Canadian film world works.
Since kicking down the doors of Canadian cinema in 2013 with his dark school-shooting comedy The Dirties, Matt Johnson and his ever-expanding band of misfits – producer Matthew Miller, music man/sometimes co-star Jay McCarrol, cinematographer Jared Raab, editor Curt Lobb, and many more – have changed the rules of the CanCon game.
Johnson’s work – The Dirties, Operation Avalanche, the Viceland series Nirvanna the Band the Show, and even the Amazon Kids+ cartoon Matt & Bird Break Loose – is brash, confrontational and deceptively chaotic. There is a controlled, ambitious discipline to all the onscreen anarchy. His work is a riotous, fiery kind of comedy whose subterfuge is so subtly stage-managed that you don’t see the cans of gas fuelling the flames higher and higher.
In BlackBerry, though, Johnson is taking on a bigger, and more daring, challenge than he has ever confronted. Forget breaking into the Royal Ontario Museum’s archives for a Nirvanna the Band the Show stunt or secretly invading NASA headquarters to film Operation Avalanche – telling the story of Canada’s most famous, and then infamous, corporation is an act akin to painting a big fat red maple leaf-shaped target on your back. Shouldn’t such a Heritage Minute be reserved for a staid docudrama series that might have once upon a time aired Saturday night on CTV and then promptly been tossed into the cable TV ether? Or, worse yet, adapted by Americans at Netflix and filmed on an anonymous Atlanta sound stage?
Instead, Johnson got his busy, twitchy hands on the story, and now we have Canadian cinema’s answer to The Social Network. This is a relentlessly live-wire film that deserves its spotlight on the world stage at this year’s Berlinale: BlackBerry is funny, fast and nerve-rattling. And it is always – always – intensely entertaining.
A very loose adaptation of the 2015 book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry (written by Globe and Mail journalists Sean Silcoff and Jacquie McNish, the latter of whom later moved to The Wall Street Journal), the film opens with the disclaimer that it is a “fictionalization“ inspired by real events. Which means that anyone expecting a detailed look at, say, the company’s protracted battle with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission should prepare themselves. This is compressed corporate history, more focused on the raging personalities and soul-testing temptations that come with success rather than cataloguing the bricks and mortar of building, and then destroying, a business.
Kicking off in 1996, when the world is still tethered to desktop computing, the film follows a prematurely grey mechanical genius named Mike Lazaridis (Baruchel) and his best friend Doug Fregin (Johnson, in a very Johnson-y role as chief trouble maker). While trying to find investors for their tiny Waterloo, Ont., company called Research In Motion, the pair stumble and bumble, more accustomed to building circuit boards than pleasing people.
At the start, RIM is just making modems for U.S. Robotics – and getting jerked around on the contract – but Lazaridis and Fregin have a big idea in their back pocket, or rather front one: a computer that you can fit inside the palm of your hand. But their engineers (played by various Johnson friends/staples of Canada’s micro-budget indie scene) are overgrown man-children, and Lazaridis cannot hope to navigate the corporate waters. Enter: the shark. With one giant, vulgar chomp, Harvard grad and NHL fanatic Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) takes control of RIM, rocketing it to the top of the stock market. But Lazaridis soon finds out what his new business partner already knows too well – that innovation requires sacrifice – while Balsillie fails to recognize the heights (depths?) of his own hubris. And then, all of a sudden, it is the era of the iPhone.
Shot as if captured by hidden cameras – scenes are partially obscured by office furniture or caught with the intentionally unsteady hand of a cameraman who is in fear of being found out – the film has an air of DIY guerrilla, you-are-here naturalism. You’re pulled in, tossed around, given a shake – just as Lazaridis and Balsillie turned and reconfigured their own world. And hidden in nearly every corner is evidence of a painstaking amount of period-specific set design – movie posters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, arcade games – that underlines just how closely Johnson feels to the story of outcasts building their empire behind the glow of a Game Boy.
Howerton, who was cast on the strength of his prowess for yelling on the long-running sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, offers a Balsillie who is almost entirely sharp elbows and gnashing teeth. Although his professional quest to rebuild/destroy the NHL could be given some more room to breathe, Johnson and Miller’s screenplay decides early and cleverly to paint him as a being of pure, fierce determination, and Howerton digs deep to showcase the benefits of being a menace. It is a pugilistic performance, though, that demands a counterpoint punching bag – one who you feel deeply for as they get knocked down over and over. Which is why Baruchel is so tender and tragic as Lazaridis. Requiring more moments of pure drama than the comic actor is used to taking on, BlackBerry throws Baruchel into several emotional woodchippers, all of which he jumps right back out of, somehow fully formed.
There are a half dozen more Canadian character actors doing wonderful work in the margins, too, including Saul Rubinek as the ornery head of Verizon, Michael Ironside as RIM’s tough-talking chief operating officer (a fine echo of his work on another tech-crisis drama, last year’s The Dropout), and a quick, smirk-to-smirk appearance from Mark Critch as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. (The film’s sometimes venomous depictions of Bettman and Balsillie may be the only things that the two men ever privately agree on, even if it is a shared sense of dissatisfaction. I can imagine the vulgar texts – perhaps iMessages? – already.)
There is more than a small thrill to be had in watching BlackBerry and anticipating just how the rest of the world might receive the film after its Berlinale world premiere. At home, the movie isn’t so much a game-changer as it is a game-affirmer: confirmation that Johnson delivered on his many promises and salvos. Like the glory days inside RIM, BlackBerry proves that the misfits are now in charge of the machine. May it never crash.