BlackBerry is a corporate biopic (finally) done right

It’s a thoughtful, lightning-in-a-bottle instant classic.
Blackberry Courtesy Of Ifc Films 1

Blackberry (2023). // Courtesy of IFC Films

Like Ben Affleck’s dangerously affable ode to Capitalism, Air, Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry has a key scene that tells you everything the movie is secretly about. Fortunately, the message is Air’s exact antithesis. 

Research in Motion co-founders and best friends Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Johnson) are dealing with a massive network overload caused by too many BlackBerry users. At the same time, Lazaridis has just agreed to outsource production of the phones to China to keep up with demand at the behest of bulldog COO Charles Purdy (Michael Ironside), something he swore he’d never do.

“Why do you think these guys work 80 hours a week and never see their families?” Fregin asks Lazaridis. “Because they get to work on the best phone in the world, Doug,” Lazaridis answers without a hint of irony. Fregin takes a beat. “Yeah, that must be it,” he says. The eye roll is implied.

BlackBerry is so far the only entry among a growing number of cinematic Tall Tales of the Corporate World that asks the right questions about the toxic relationship between innovation and corporate culture. You could compare it to The Social Network in its level of criticism, but Johnson is interested in different things than David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin were.

Rather than consider the kind of person that would make something like Facebook, BlackBerry interrogates the concepts of success that both generate ingenuity and also slowly chip away at personal integrity until you’ve lost sight of what matters.

It’s a thoughtful, lightning-in-a-bottle instant classic.

BlackBerry follows Research In Motion from its beginnings in 1996 through the moment its flagship product ostensibly became obsolete in 2008 following the advent of the iphone. Lazaridis and Fregin originally pitch their idea for a “Pocketlink” phone that also functions as an email client to corporate exec Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), a Harvard MBA shark who quickly bullies his way into becoming RIM’s co-CEO. Under Balsillie’s marketing-heavy guidance, BlackBerry becomes an international phenomenon. 

As the company grows and tries to meet new market challenges, tensions also rise between Lazaridis, the brains of the operation, and Fregin, ostensibly its heart. Meanwhile, Balsillie becomes increasingly obsessed with cornering the market and obtaining more and more status symbols. Balsillie’s fixation on growth at the expense of feasibility leads to some competitive hiring maneuvers that eventually create problems with the SEC.

Johnson and cinematographer Jared Raab shoot mainly in a low-fi, handheld style that captures first the ragtag nature of the engineering team’s early days, and later the panicked momentum of Balsillie’s corporate greed and its impacts on his employees. Think of it like a Sorkin walk-and-talk that’s been surviving on a diet of black coffee, Mountain Dew, and Domino’s. 

Blackberry Still 1

Blackberry (2023). // Courtesy of IFC Films

The script, by Johnson and Matthew Miller, also creates a fascinating, layered dynamic between Lazaridis, Fregin and Balsillie that considers the strengths and failings each man brings to the table. Balsillie’s killer instinct is essential to getting RIM off the ground, but quickly spirals out of control as he keeps promising things that can’t reasonably be delivered on the timeline he offers. Lazaridis is committed to the product’s integrity, to the detriment of adapting it to changing market trends and demands. Fregin initially comes off as a schlubby dork, but it’s increasingly clear that his emotional intelligence is a valuable, often-ignored asset. 

With writing this rich, quality performances are guaranteed. Howerton makes a meal out of his performance as Balsillie, alternately hysterical, frighteningly cold and pathetic. As Fregin, Johnson exudes a puppy doggish enthusiasm that becomes increasingly diminished the more his colleagues’ humanity fades. You can see the exact moment the light leaves his character’s eyes. 

BlackBerry suggests that when it comes to telling effective stories that question the towering myth of capitalist success, that endeavor might be best left to the Canadians. Johnson depicts the divide between c-suite posturing and actual on-the-ground knowledge with perfect clarity. He knows the cost of doing business Balsillie’s way (and the way of people like him) is honesty, quality and genuine care for other people. And when all that eventually falls apart, like it always does, eventually the dream dies, too. 

Categories: Movies