‘BlackBerry’ is a look back at phone war's also-ran
Gather around, young ones. Silence your iPhones and Samsungs. We're here to learn about the “Before Times,” when the hottest tech device was nicknamed “CrackBerry.”
The gripping and hugely enjoyable “BlackBerry” is about the famous — and later infamous — Research in Motion gadget that helped trigger the global smartphone era as we know it, before sliding into obsolescence.
The BlackBerry may seem quaint now in the days of sleek water-resistant 5G phones with face ID, but it was the first mobile device with a pager, cellphone and email capability all in one thing. No idea? Ask your parents.
“BlackBerry” tells the standard rise and fall of a tech startup that blows up, naturally leading to insider infighting — think “Silicon Valley” and “The Social Network” — but there’s a twist here: The main money guy, while very shouty, is not the sleazy, bad guy you might expect.
Director and co-writer Matt Johnson recounts a breathless decade or so starting in 1996, when Research in Motion was just an office filled with tech geeks in Canada. Johnson also stars as Doug Fregin, a headband-wearing, movie-quoting uber-geek, an amalgam of a few Research in Motion people.
Smart as the geeks were, they weren't modern business owners. Research in Motion — led by a nervous but good-intentioned engineer Mike Lazaridis (an excellent Jay Baruchel) — had the idea of a computer inside a phone using a free wireless signal but was in debt and out of its depth, with no prototype.
Enter Jim Balsillie (a superbly menacing Glenn Howerton) who snaps his Harvard-educated towel at the geeks, canceling movie nights and slamming their noses to the grindstones. He screams things like: “You need to sell a million BlackBerrys before Q3!”
Balsillie manages BlackBerry through shark-infested waters — like an attempted takeover by PalmPilot and network collapses — but his plan to backdate stock options to hire top engineers dog the company, and you can feel Apple breathing down the company’s neck.
Audiences will get that terrible sinking feeling when they see Research in Motion employees watch one of Steve Jobs’ early presentations at Apple, offering the-then mind-blowing idea of a phone with no external keyboard while BlackBerry was armed … with a trackpad.
The film is adapted from Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s “Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry.” It is said to be “a fictionalization inspired by real people and real events.”
The second half of “BlackBerry” is heartbreaking — the loss of geek culture, the loss of principles and the loss of friendships. It's the Icarus story, except instead of wings they had autocomplete while typing with your thumbs.
The funniest bits of the movie are when the geeks are king, like NASA engineers on Apollo 9 gathering around a table figuring out data puzzles or soldering together hardware and writing code. The filmmakers use clips of “Star Trek” and “Inspector Gadget” to show what they were doing was futuristic. (Your parents will agree.)
Johnson makes the film even more enjoyable as the soundtrack moves from Joy Division, the Strokes and Moby to MC Hammer and The White Stripes. There are also small but great acting turns by Saul Rubinek, Cary Elwes and Michael Ironside.
Johnson’s nicely plotted and sympathetic eye is in every frame, and he sets the tone early on in the first image from 1996: It’s a car driven by the BlackBerry co-creators and it is passing a horse.
“BlackBerry,” an IFC Films release that is in theaters Friday, is rated R for “language throughout.” Running time: 119 minutes. Three stars out of four.