There have been a lot of movies lately, like Air and Tetris, about the development of popular products of the past. Now, with BlackBerry, we have the best of this mini-genre to date. The film, from Canadian director Matt Johnson, is a look at the rise and fall of Research in Motion, the Ontario-based startup that created one of the first popular smartphones, the BlackBerry, in the late-1990s.
BlackBerry is based on a book called Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry. The way it tells the story is that the company was founded by a group of young Canadian goofballs, led by gadget-tinkerer Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel), who seemed more interested in movie nights and playing pinball than work. But that changes when joined by Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), a cutthroat capitalist who closely resembles Gordon Gekko. The company creates the line of devices that revolutionized portable computing, but Research in Motion soon collapses, under the weight of hubris, bonus-backdating shenanigans, Balsillie’s doomed plot to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins and move them to Ontario, and more than anything else, Apple’s introduction of the iPhone in 2007. And that’s what is ironic. Research in Motion did all of those things wrong, but even if they hadn’t, the iPhone probably would’ve overtaken the BlackBerry anyway.
I was reminded of the TV series Halt and Catch Fire, about a fictional company trying to build a personal computer in the early-1980s. The first season leads up to a scene in which the main character (Lee Pace) stumbles into a presentation of the first Macintosh, knowing immediately that their plans will fail. There's a similar scene here, in which the characters watch Steve Jobs in the original iPhone keynote. BlackBerry, like the real company at its launch, features very few women, although it makes fun of this in a wonderful, too-long reaction shot of the only woman in the room.
The film, at a time when major Hollywood productions are often afraid to antagonize China, BlackBerry has a running joke about the poor craftsmanship of Chinese-made products—one with a fantastic payoff. BlackBerry recalls David Fincher’s The Social Network, although it goes even further in depicting its main characters as assholes. The film is led by an amazing performance by Howerton, the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia mainstay who gives an intense, bald cap-supported turn that’s one of the best of the year. The supporting cast is deep. The veteran actor Michael Ironside plays the company’s burly new COO, brought in as an enforcer to scare the geeks, while the suddenly ubiquitous Cary Elwes plays Carl Yankowski—the CEO of Palm, who was trying to mount a hostile takeover—as a grinning, passive-aggressive idiot. And Saul Rubinek makes a meal of a couple of boardroom scenes as a telecom executive.
This is a movie where following the plot requires remembering the specifics of the big telecom mergers of the late-1990s, such as why the Bell Atlantic headquarters becomes that of Verizon, and the guy introduced as the CEO of Cingular is later running AT&T. A few things are off. The characters dress like they're from the 1980s, even though the movie starts in 1996. Someone mentions in 2007 that Apple is working on an App Store for the iPhone, even though this wouldn't come along until the second iPhone a year later. Even if you’ve never even touched a BlackBerry or sent a BBM, BlackBerry is an excellent exploration of an innovative but doomed product.