We’re all aware Apple won out in the battle of fruit-labeled phones. That said, BlackBerry controlled most of the cellular market for a substantial period. Matt Johnson’s adaptation of Jacquie McNish Sean Silcoff’s Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry has to be one of the more cutthroat Canadian biopics I’ve seen, and yet it works as a tragi-comedy about a couple of guys attempting to reconcile power and greed against quality. In a year that’s already delivered Air and Tetris, here’s another tale of what lengths a company went to so they could stay on top, but it’s more willing to hit against the edge, even with the added humor that makes it all quite enjoyable.
Jay Baruchel stars as Mike Lazaridis, an electrical and computer engineer who, along with his business partner and best friend, Douglas Fregin (Johnson), underwhelmingly presents an idea for a phone that can send emails to Glenn Howerton’s Jim Balsillie. While Mike is a somewhat introverted guy, Jim is tightly wound and ready to scream at a moment’s notice. He also feels undervalued in his current position, which, among other reasons, leads him to partner with Mike (demanding to be CEO), as he knows how to sell this phone idea. Sure enough, despite whatever difficulties, the BlackBerry is born and rides a wave of success for a while until the desire to go higher finds its limits, along with the arrival of competing technology.
The inevitable introduction of the iPhone gives BlackBerry something of a countdown clock to deal with, at least on a subconscious level when it comes to the viewer. Or perhaps that’s exclusive to me. Sure, years from now, this story will possibly be able to not have the shadow of Apple looming over it. However, as it stands, I still feel that knowing there was certain doom always in store meant the film had an interesting arrangement to consider.
Unlike other recent films about corporations and the people who run them that get in over their heads, so much of BlackBerry concerns two people who see success and run away with it in a way that provides few options beyond eventual setbacks. Regardless of what’s being fictionalized (by all accounts, the real Mike Lazaridis seems even nicer than how Baruchel plays him), the film’s success comes from the way it humanizes their struggles, as well as their descent.
Looking at them separately, Howerton fully inhabits the role of a man with a chip on his shoulder who is not afraid to blow up on people to get his way. Sporting a bald cap and unlimited rage, it’s impressive how much amusement is derived from how Jim can poke at the people around him without becoming a black hole from which the film can’t escape. Perhaps it’s my familiarity with Howerton’s work on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or maybe it’s knowing that for all this guy’s success, we still don’t ever really see him happy. Whatever the case, something jives about how one takes in this performance. Not hurting are the long stares Jim provides as he contemplates his next move. For all the screaming, the silence also goes a long way.
Similarly, Baruchel does excellent work at playing up his character’s anxieties and the lack of a confrontational spirit. This guy wants to build perfect devices and is far less interested in the inter-office politics around him. With that said, as this film tracks time from 1996 to 2009, we very much see how Mike evolves to become more like Jim over time. And it’s particularly entertaining to see Mike let his white hair push into a more luxurious look as if it’s one of the few areas he can succeed over the man who pushes him so hard.
Outside the two leads, a solid supporting cast provides what’s needed. Cary Elwes and Saul Rubinek position themselves well as business foils for our leads. Michael Ironside shows up for no real reason other than to let his intimidating presence be known. Okay, fine, he’s some kind of security advisor, but he is a welcome site nonetheless. And director Matt Johnson does provide a counterbalance to Howerton’s work, with some interesting similarities regarding how they both initially have some control over Mike.
Not settling for a straightforward look, BlackBerry also gets points for taking on the look of a gritty docudrama. Shot by Jared Raab, there’s a real effort to make the viewer feel like they are on the ground with all these people. A lot of thought is put into this presentation, which includes the editing schemes and the ways to communicate the multiple jumps in time. Given how many biopics we’ve seen concentrated on corporations, whether or not this film is on the level of The Social Network or Steve Jobs, BlackBerry at least feels akin in the way it chooses to bring in some stylish authority to its presentation, better helping the film to stand out.
Perhaps the film goes on longer than it should, but it’s hard to dig into what could be taken out. Enough snappy rhythm to this screenplay makes the whole endeavor continually worthwhile. The messaging isn’t saying too much one hasn’t already gleaned from similar stories, as well. However, just seeing Canada step into the ring with a specific story regarding such an iconic device sparks plenty of interest on its own.
I never personally owned a BlackBerry, and I can only picture a handful of times I may have even held one. However, this is a fitting approach to a story that relies on big personalities, the perseverance of geeks with a dream, and what it means to reach a new limit in the tech industry before that goalpost gets moved back even further. BlackBerry takes a fun approach to its behind-the-scenes look at the people behind it, layering on an interesting dramatic angle for good measure. It works out, as this film, much like the phone, really clicks.