Calgary Underground 2023: BLACKBERRY Review
In the wild west days of nascent “smart phone” technology, the phrase convergence was tossed around a lot, where your computer, your phone and your personal digital assistant, would merge into one device. A small company, whose building was located in the parking lot adjacent to the University of Waterloo, Research In Motion, briefly became one of the largest players on the world stage of tech hardware. Some time later, they renamed themselves after their ubiquitous tippy-tap keyboard rocking device, that was the must-have item in the early 2000s - A Blackberry.
Everyone from the average middle manager in a small company, to Presidential candidate Barack Obama to Vogue’s Anna Wintour, and Kevin Spacey’s monstrous political operator in House of Cards - and practically everyone else in that early Netflix show for that matter. People now speak of many of these early convergence devices as simply, “the thing they had before they bought an iPhone.” Blackberry devices were so addictive and disruptive in the corporate world, my co-workers at the time called them “crack berries.” This was the beginning of smart phone addiction and digital distraction we find ourselves mired in today.
The history of the rise and fall of Blackberry, was documented in a well received book, Losing the Signal, by two Canadian writers, Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff. When this book fell into the hands of Matt Johnson and his long time writing/producing partner, Matthew Miller, they certainly took a page out of legendary filmmaker John Ford, and his classic, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Apologies to both with this paraphrase: “This is Waterloo, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The resulting movie is Blackberry, a white knuckle tech hustle that treats corporate operations and dealings like The Bourne Ultimatum (with a just a hint of This is Spinal Tap! and The Safdie Brother's Good Time or Uncut Gems) The film has an intense visual energy, and propulsive documentary rhythm coupled with a tragic bromance relationship failure. The roving camera favours long shots (both in distance from the actors, and length of the shot) which achieves its own kind of dramatic effect. At the heart of the film is the conflict of philosophy between three men at the scrappy beginnings of Research In Motion.
The first of these re is Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel who brilliantly disappears into the role of quiet, fussy perfectionist, who is greying early due to anxiety) whose a charming innocence as to how the business world operates makes him a victim waiting to happen. He and his pal Doug (Matt Johnson sporting ur-geek chic t-shirts and a comical red sweatband) let the day to day operations of Research in Motion run like a shaggy university engineering dorm from whence all of their Canadian engineers migrated a mere 100 meters from to work there. Movie Night quote-alongs, and long gaming sessions of Doom or Command & Conquer on their networked workstations, that is to say, geeky shenanigans and an emphasis on having fun, was the office culture. This was coupled, organically, with long hours with a soldering iron and banging out code.
Then there is the elephant in the room Jim Balsillie, a terrifying corporate operator who shouts and projects his aggressive alpha-asshole more than even Steve Jobs. He is introduced at a former company, trying to secure a major promotion at the expense of both a fellow executive, and his boss and friend. Glenn Howerton (It's Always In Philadelphia) is both terrifying and revelatory in how he leans into this performance. You cannot look away, even as a fight or flight response is continually triggered.
Balsillie is in the middle of juggling this scheme across phone calls, office doors and corridors, when Mike & Doug struggle to have their clunky pitch on a device that combines email, phone, and pager, with him. In the middle of all of this this Mike also gets hung up on the fixing the white-noise buzz from Jim’s intercom due to cheap Chinese technology, that is merely good enough to not think about it, but far from great. If the rise and fall of Blackberry narrative has a ‘thesis’ or a moral, it is beautifully summarized in this piece of Sorkin-esque back and forth.
Mike: “I’ll do it perfectly or I won’t do it.”
Jim: “Are you familiar with the saying, perfect is the enemy of good.”
Mike: “No. Good enough is the enemy of humanity.”
From there the film is an adrenaline fuelled balancing act of loud needle drops, start-up culture rendered in a variety of film stocks, corporate board rooms, and private planes. But Johnson never lets the relationships and worldview of these three men disappear. By the time the SEC, NHL (were are still in Canada, eh?) and Apple come into the picture, to complete the companies Icarus-like trajectory, Johnson has been spinning a variety of plates to propel the plot around what these men’s relationships with each other are doing to compromise their souls. Who knew there was so much emotional violence in Canadian corporate goings on?
One of the most satisfying aspects from this wildly entertaining movie, is the density and attention to detail of its chaotic production design. From its opening shot of Mike and Doug’s shabby Honda driving past a Mennonite wagon (a familiar site to anyone who has lived in Kitchener-Waterloo in Ontario) to the pop cultural ephemera of the RIM office (reams of nerd posters and t-shirts), to the diners and airport waiting areas of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The film is not in your face about the recent period, as it focuses on the technology story and characters, but not since David Fincher’s Zodiac have I seen the elegant balance of such elements that just feels right; without feeling in your face about it. Matt Johnson and his team of collaborators responsible for The Dirties, Operation Avalanche, and Nirvana The Band The Show, keep getting better at what they do, without ever sacrificing how they do it. Blackberry is not simply “good enough.” It is a legend.
- Matt Johnson
- Matt Johnson
- Jacquie McNish
- Matthew Miller
- Jay Baruchel
- Glenn Howerton
- Matt Johnson