I never had a BlackBerry. Child of frugal immigrants that I am, I hung onto my early-1990s landline phone until it breathed its last, at which time I replaced it with an iPhone 5S. Before that, I heard about people having “CrackBerries” and rejoiced that I wasn’t tethered to some electronic device in my pocket demanding my attention. Looking back, I’m pretty satisfied with the way I handled that.
This week, our neighbors to the north give us a film about the tech device’s tragicomic rise and fall. The story picks up in 1996 when Mike Lazaridis and Doug Fregin (Jay Baruchel and Matt Johnson), the co-founders of the Waterloo, Ont.-based tech firm Research in Motion, take a meeting with tech executive Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) to tell him that they’ve developed a single device that sends and receives phone calls, email, and text. Jim initially tells them to piss off, but he loses his own job soon afterwards, so he joins RIM as CEO in exchange for a $125,000 injection of capital for the debt-laden firm. With him, the BlackBerry storms the tech world.
Jim (who continually corrects people that his surname is pronounced “BALLS-ly” and not “ball-SILLY”) initially shapes up to be the villain of the piece, a traditional suit who admits that he’s never seen Star Wars, which almost makes Mike burst into tears. Quickly, though, it becomes clear that while RIM’s programmers are tech geniuses, they badly need Jim’s social skills and business acumen — even after writing that big check, Jim has to mortgage his house so that RIM can send out its employee paychecks on time. When he tries to make a business call from the office, he gets a busy signal because the programmers are busy playing Doom.
Johnson is also the director and co-writer here, adapting this movie from Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, which I’ll admit I didn’t have a chance to read. He goes at this yarn by dexterously walking the line between ’00s nostalgia and making fun of the era’s foibles, and he makes the story’s complicated concepts easy to digest — Jim needs a second before he translates the engineers’ latest technical breakthrough into a selling point: “Free unlimited texting only on BlackBerry. Fuck yes!” The first act ends with a great scene, as Mike rides to the rescue during Jim’s moribund pitch meeting with Bell Atlantic (soon to become Verizon) and dazzles the executives with how the BlackBerry is going to work.
BlackBerry’s success flings its corporate leaders to different corners of the world, and while it’s true that this separation contributes to the company’s downfall, the story does lose some zest once its main characters split up. While Apple launches its iPhone and seizes BlackBerry’s crown as tech’s killer product, Jim — a lifelong Toronto Maple Leafs fan — is busy trying to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins and move them to Hamilton, Ont. Meanwhile, Doug, who wears headbands and tank tops to the office, finds himself increasingly out of step with the corporate culture, and Mike finds himself making compromise after compromise to keep up with Apple, including having the BlackBerries made in China after swearing he would always keep his manufacturing jobs in Canada. In the end, Jim’s shady business dealings take him down. BlackBerry isn’t the best workplace drama of the season, but it is funny and engaging. If you have memories of that thing you used to have before your Android or iPhone, this will make you remember it in a new way.
Starring Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton. Directed by Matt Johnson. Written by Matt Johnson and Matthew Miller, based on Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s book. Rated R.