The BlackBerry movie is a fantastic, riotous tribute to an iconic Canadian brand

Matt Johnson has given Canada its own excellent (and long-overdue!) tech biopic

Jay Baruchel as Mike Lazaridis and Glenn Howerton as Jim Balsillie in BlackBerry

My first-ever smartphone was the BlackBerry Curve.

After using a basic flip phone for emergencies throughout middle school, I loved the Curve’s dedicated keyboard and, in my teenage naïveté, believed myself to be a real baller with the phone at high school.

In reality, that lasted for about five minutes before I quickly realized how pretty much everyone else had an iPhone. As a result, I’ve often felt like I was late to the BlackBerry party, and I certainly never appreciated the retired phone brand’s storied Canadian legacy.

It’s for this reason that the idea of a BlackBerry movie is so fascinating to me. With the histories of companies like Apple and Facebook covered extensively across all kinds of media, the comparatively unknown story of BlackBerry is just begging to be told, especially for more casual fans like me.

Enter the appropriately titled BlackBerry, based on Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry. The film, co-written and directed by Toronto’s Matt Johnson (Nirvanna the Band the Show), examines the highs and lows of the phone brand from the perspective of Canadian entrepreneurs and former BlackBerry co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis (Ottawa’s Jay Baruchel) and Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton).

Immediately, it becomes clear that this isn’t your normal biographical drama about a tech icon. Johnson, who has made clear his “true civic pride” in telling a quintessentially Canadian story, makes the smart decision to open the film in early ’90s Waterloo where the company that would become BlackBerry, Research In Motion, was but a humble upstart. Seeing our small team of engineers working out of a tiny second-floor office in a Waterloo strip mall beside a Shoppers Drug Mart — a far cry from Silicon Valley — helps ground the story in a way that everyone, especially Canadians, can appreciate. (Hamilton, Ontario stands in for Waterloo here.)

BlackBerry movie Research In Motion team

There’s a lot of charm to be found in Research In Motion’s scrappy beginnings.

Johnson has also made the smart choice to shoot the film like a documentary to make you feel like you’re part of the BlackBerry team. In this way, you become further endeared to this scrappy bunch that regularly plays Doom and hosts movie nights in the office. One early scene, in particular, in which everyone watches Raiders of the Lost Ark while Lazaridis is quietly toiling away at a prototype serves as a perfect encapsulation of Lazaridis’ drive. It’s a strong, understated showcase for Baruchel, who has to balance Lazaridis’ outwardly meek demeanour with his brilliance and passion. Johnson, meanwhile, has an entertaining turn as BlackBerry co-founder Douglas Fregin, a lovable goofball who has a charming rapport with Baruchel’s subdued Lazaridis.

But the film truly comes alive when Balsillie comes into play. Howerton, best known for his shouty, abrasive character Dennis Reynolds from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, channels that same energy into Balsillie, and the results are simply magnetic. It’s an explosive performance that mixes the suave charm you would expect from a savvy businessman with the unbridled fury that comes when he doesn’t get his way. Meanwhile, Johnson mines much of the film’s humour from how this fiery Harvard graduate struggles to find common ground with Lazaridis’ inexperienced team.

Throughout the film, the dynamic between the brainy Lazaridis and brawny Balsillie is electric, and it’s through that it becomes easy to see why BlackBerry took off. At the same time, Johnson doesn’t shy away from the darker sides of this unorthodox partnership. It’s no secret that Lazaridis, while undeniably a tech whiz, is quite impressionable, and the film explores how Balsillie takes advantage of that. It makes BlackBerry feel refreshingly distinct from the internalized, psychological conflicts we’ve seen presented by Aaron Sorkin in the likes of The Social Network and Steve Jobs.

BlackBerry Jim Balsille and Mike Lazaridis

The dynamic between Baruchel’s Lazaridis and Howerton’s Balsillie is extremely compelling.

Because, after all, we know how ultimately BlackBerry ends up. Unlike Facebook and Apple, the Canadian phone empire doesn’t last. But Johnson, to his credit, finds both the humour and tragedy in such a fall from grace, brought about by both zany accidents and unchecked ambition. Did you know Jim Balsillie made an unsuccessful bid, amid BlackBerry struggles, to purchase and move the Pittsburgh Penguins to Hamilton? Throw in Apple’s groundbreaking 2007 reveal of the iPhone, which is appropriately framed like something out of a horror movie for the BlackBerry team watching at home, and you truly come to understand what went wrong here.

And while BlackBerry’s phone line might have failed, Johnson — the kind of filmmaker who reps the Toronto Blue Jays even at international premieres — still uses BlackBerry to celebrate the Canadian spirit. It’s easy to imagine an American production company taking this story and diluting its Canadian roots (see, for example, the Oscar-winning Argo), but Johnson, commendably, was insistent on making as much as possible actually Canadian. From the core story, aforementioned filming locations and co-star to a delightful “who’s who” of supporting Canadian character actors (Toronto’s Michael Ironside! Ottawa’s Saul Rubinek!), BlackBerry feels distinctly Canadian.

It also, quite simply, is just one of the year’s best films. It may have taken many years, but Canada finally has its own The Social Network, and that’s something to celebrate, eh?

BlackBerry will open in Canadian theatres on May 12th.

Image credit: Elevation