Review: In Gritty and Intense Detail, BlackBerry Recounts the Shady Story of the First Smartphone

If Ben Affleck's Air is the feel-good product origin story of the year (and it is), Matt Johnson's BlackBerry is its dark counterpart, a cautionary tale about ambition, technology and toxic masculinity that manages to be just as entertaining. In what's something of a trend these days, BlackBerry is the latest to adapt the real-life story in capitalism's recent history of a landmark product launch. Directed, co-written by and starring Johnson, he and fellow writer Matt Miller (based on the book by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff) have captured the moment all our lives changed: when the company then known as RIM (Research in Motion) created and sold the first hand-held mobile communications device: the BlackBerry.

Johnson plays Doug Fregin, one half of a business partnership with Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) who haven't had a ton of success to date but have struck on something interesting, if only they can get the investments and leadership in place to help them get it to market. Enter Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), a no-nonsense CEO whose default is keyed up to 11 and who does more screaming than talking. He's got big plans for the company and their new product, and plans to lie, cheat and coerce his way into success however he needs to in order to get to where he wants to be (large and in charge, that's where). If these characters weren't based on people, you'd think they'd been typecast for maximum dramatic effect.

BlackBerry is preceded by a title card that confirms the film is a fictionalization of events, but the core of the story is one we all know: the company launched the most sought-after new gadget in history and for a brief, shining second, they were the most important telecommunications device company in the world. That is, until Apple caught up to them with their slick new iPhone and completely upended the mobile phone space, spelling the end for Balsillie, Lazaridis and BlackBerry itself.

Johnson (and cinematographer Jared Raab) films much of BlackBerry like a covert documentary, the shots meant to feel like we're observing history in the making, the handheld vibe and shifting focus lending to the film's sense of instability. As Balsillie screams and schemes his way through deals to get the BlackBerry out and keep the company profitable, Lazardis is two tiny steps behind him with the technology, pushing himself and his developers to deliver on hardware and software that doesn't even exist yet. If the film reveals anything about the story of how the first smartphone was launched, it's that it was done with the support of nothing more stable than a house of cards.

All the tension makes this gritty, bleak story hard to watch now and then, and Howerton and Baruchel deliver performances that ratchet it all up even further. With his bald cap and bad suits, Howerton's Balsillie is as slimy as snake oil salesmen come, his toxic brand of corporate leadership a cringeworthy reminder of why I, for one, am self-employed. His intensity is all the more amplified by Baruchel's timid and cowering Lazaridis, a guy who knows he has a good idea but doesn't have the soft skills to sell it. Despite Fregin's best counsel, Lazaridis lines himself up in lockstep with Balsillie, and as the film progresses over the company's growing success over the years, it's clear that the latter's skeeviness is rubbing off on the former.

I'm not sure the world needed a film about how the BlackBerry came to be, but as an addition to the "remember this moment in our collective recent history" genre, Johnson at least succeeds in delivering something edgier and more interesting than the films and series content to simply recount the high points of a well-known corporate story. If the end result is being even less interested in seeing corporations—and the shady men who run them—reap enormous profits off our endless desire for the Next Big Thing, well, maybe that's the uplifting story we need after all.

BlackBerry is now in theaters.

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Lisa Trifone