Berlin 2023

BlackBerry review – compulsive, funny chronicle of corporate chaos

The rise and fall of the BlackBerry makes for surprisingly gripping viewing in Matt Johnson's distinctly Canadian tragicomedy

It's easy to forget that BlackBerry once had the world in the palm of its hand. Even easier to forget that the once unstoppable pocket brand is now entirely obsolete, a mere footnote in the global battle for smartphone supremacy. But how many of us knew the intricate details of the company's remarkable rise and fall, a cautionary tale with enough corporate chaos to power a two-hour feature? Hats off to writer-director Matt Johnson, then, for realising its screen potential and turning an irrelevant product into a movie that feels anything but.

This is a distinctly Canadian tragicomedy that has no right to be as gripping – or as fun – as it is, though credit where credit's due: David Fincher's The Social Network is clearly the major point of inspiration. Can you blame Johnson? That movie made jargon cool and was proof that a good film could be about anything – even algorithms. BlackBerry takes its cues from Fincher's masterpiece (as does Jay McCarrol's digitally-inclined score) by simply existing and throws in a bit of Succession's documentary-like camerawork for good measure – a risky move, but one that succeeds in making its characters' present – the story starts in the mid-90s – feel closer to our own.

Which characters, you ask? Glenn Howerton, best known as a co-creator and star of TV’s It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, might have seemed like an odd choice to play BlackBerry co-CEO Jim Balsillies, who arrives at the failing RIM company with a plan to set the world on fire (a feat he'll repeat more literally later on). Sporting a distracting bald cap, he captures the slippery corporate agenda of a man compelled to push the boat out until it inevitably sinks without ever slipping into caricature. The smart casting doesn't end there: props to Jay Baruchel, here as BlackBerry designer Mike Lazaridis and far quieter than we're used to seeing him, but who is brilliantly believable as the meek, near-voiceless man who has the brains but not the business mind to nurture his genius.

Spanning the years 1992 to 2007, BlackBerry moves from heyday to last day with a momentum and clarity that seems almost alien in the current market, relying on our positions as viewers in the future to create points of genuine drama. Laugh as AT&T execs scoff at the idea of sending an email from a phone! Cry as Steve Jobs unveils plans for a mobile device with a built-in keyboard! For all its leaning into dramatic irony and humour, though, BlackBerry doesn't get bogged down in knowing winks, delivering a hubristic lesson about greed and ego with a sincerity that really stings.

If, all said and done, the movie has the staying power of a live-action Wikipedia page, one can't help but admire the confidence and entertainment value it wrings out in merely delivering the facts (or a version thereof). Made in Canada with a mostly Canadian team, BlackBerry is a refreshingly modest production, watched with new-found hope for the mid-budget movie; slick without being smarmy, it commands your attention like… well, a smartphone… and succeeds on a script level in a way that, these days, feels as hard to come by as the titular brand.

BlackBerry was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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