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‘Blackberry’ review: Matt Johnson’s retelling of the once beloved and fallen handheld device wins in balance

Long before iPhones and Androids, the Blackberry had a massive market share. A film peers into the rise and fall.

Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

This review was originally published during the 2023 SXSW Film Festival.

It’s 16 years later, and the iPhone is now on its 14th iteration. Since the late Steve Jobs announced its inception in 2007, it’s been a staple in our collaborative ecosystems. It’s a big computer in your pocket. Calls, yes, but listening to music and podcasts, planning the next big meeting, or even taking some high-quality photos live all inside one device. We might have enough distance in time that it might be hard to believe there were lesser things for cellular devices out in the wild.

Remember Zack Morris’s block cell phone he used to use in Saved By The Bell (which writer/director Matt Johnson briefly highlights and pokes fun at). Other than those and beepers, there wasn’t a lot of variety of mobile devices. That’s until the Blackberry came onto the market and once had 85 million subscribers at its peak. So, how does something like that vanish off the face of the earth to zero? It doesn’t seem real - but that’s the tech industry in general.

Pop culture has had its fair share of riches-to-disaster adaptations on the big and small screen from The Social Network, The Dropout, and WeWork. These stories contain founders with a dream, how they execute it, and the fallout from the corners they cut or the hypothetical throats they slashed to get there. It all starts with good intentions,

Blackberry approaches things from a mockumentary perspective. Based on Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, there’s a certain lightheartedness to the eventual downfall of this company. It almost feels sad because as random as the big break happened, so did the circumstances that made this once beloved device collect dust.

At the heart of this story are Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Matt Johnson) – two tech guys who run a rather unorthodox operation with a big goal. Their small-ish company has a few employees who balance fun alongside work. There are regular movie nights and not a usual “corporate” environment. However, the lofty dream is to combine cell phones' pager and functionality into one thing. They have the brains but don’t have the marketing know-how.

This is where the business tenacity of Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) comes in. At first, he’s apathetic. At the time, could anybody foresee that a computer could be shrunken to be put in your pocket? However, with an unexpected job loss, he signs on to Mike and Doug’s operation and markets the heck out of the “Pocket Link.” An immense benefit to the script of Johnson and co-writer Matthew Miller is that it doesn’t waste any time with heavy details not applicable to the story itself. At the same time, Jim is devouring market share, Mike is making technical wine from water. The two characters work in tandem and are not on screen with one another. So, it feels as if their stories have equal value.

Within the middle of this is the party hardy Doug, who signifies the excitement of what a big company could be on the incline. Maybe we can someday live in a world where you can catch more flies with honey – however, the adage doesn’t ring true regarding commerce and competition. As a company grows, so does the ambition of those who started it. Often, the original mission statement gets lost in translation.

One point in the film shows the characters watching that faithful Steve Jobs press conference, and you feel empathy for them. Blackberry follows a similar throughline of company stories past, but there’s an effectiveness to how it’s shown at an individualistic level. Is it possible that if the company kept its almost renegade-like attitude, it would have stayed alive? It’s hard to say. Capitalism will have even its most staunch opponents pick things that oppose their morals. A line of faulty phones was the final straw in the last breaths of Blackberry, but many things led to its demise.

The triumph in Johnson’s take on Canadian history is that it makes you see the why in a way that twists what’s been done before to give a pass on one more company eulogy.