Matt Johnson’s story is an inspiration to aspiring filmmakers everywhere. The Canadian writer-director has been making waves on his own terms since 2007 when he started the low-budget web series Nirvanna the Band the Show with his friend Jay McCarrol. From there, he made his minimal feature debut with The Dirties, which became a major festival hit and led to his moon landing conspiracy thriller Operation Avalanche. Once again, the film was produced through frugal but inventive means – securing the filming location of NASA by claiming to be a student filmmaker doing a project. It couldn’t be more perfect, then, that Johnson’s biggest movie to date, BlackBerry, plays as a tribute to rebellious ingenuity. Based on the origins of the smartphone of the same name, BlackBerry is a relentlessly charming, hilarious, and downright pulse-pounding biopic whose sheer sense of personality propels it in front of other would-be tech epics.
BlackBerry follows three men who set out to change the world, in the process making a momentary dent in the tech business. In 1992, overambitious, slightly arrogant businessman Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) is looking for the next big idea to invest in. Instead, he finds neurotic inventor Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and his schleppy best friend/partner Douglas Fregin (Johnson himself), whose ramshackle company “Research in Motion” is perpetually stuck in crisis. What they do have, however, is a golden idea: a phone that acts as a personal computer. Combining his brash wherewithal with their actual hands-on technical skill, Jim invests and becomes CEO of Research in Motion to bring the product, dubbed “BlackBerry,” to market. This trinity of clashing personalities experiences a slow rise and a meteoric fall that excellently captures the changing tides of Silicon Valley and consumer products in the ’90s-2000s.
Although it’s budgeted higher than any of Matt Johnson’s previous projects, BlackBerry is still a relatively inexpensive picture. Not that you would know it, though, as Johnson and his team expertly work within their limitations. Most of the film is set in the offices of Research in Motion, conference rooms, and other various interiors. Combined with the clever implementation of stock footage to show the way the tech world is progressing, cinematographer Jared Raab frames the interior spaces as pressure cookers. Glazed over with film grain, the look of BlackBerry carries a fluorescent sweatiness that, along with frenetic editing by Curt Lobb and an energetic electronic score from Jay McCarrol, creates a pervasive mood of stress. Or, maybe chaos is a more apt description.
That chaos is the engine that keeps BlackBerry so compelling. While the incredible true story, as taken from the book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind The Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of Blackberry by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, provides great material, it’s all in the execution that BlackBerry makes an impact. Characters are in constant crisis, having to dig themselves out of holes 24/7 – such as when Mike has to put together a prototype phone that requires months to make in one day for a pitch meeting, or in that same pitch meeting where Mike has lost the briefcase containing the prototype so now Jim has to fudge his way through a presentation. The on-the-fly problem solving leads to crushing defeats and soaring successes that are followed by another problem, rinse and repeat.
BlackBerry feels less close to something like The Social Network than it does the TV series Succession, where the in-the-moment stresses and anxiety are the major selling point. You can thank our three leads for that. Matt Johnson is known for getting naturalistic performances out of his comedic actors via copious amounts of improv, and while it’s hard to say whether or not that same improv was employed on set or if the script by himself and producer Matthew Miller was strict, there’s a snappy, yet undeniably human feel to the multitude of dialogue scenes. Jay Baruchel (How to Train Your Dragon) steps into the role of a compulsive tinkerer and professional pushover with gusto. Seeing him transition from someone who believes in the work first and foremost to the kind of corporate tyrant he used to despise is like a magic trick, never coming across as unnatural.
Matt Johnson is affable as ever as Doug, Mike’s laid-back right-hand man who’s in it for the love of working with his best friend on tech. He gets to spout funny one-liners but he too never feels forced as a character. It should come as no surprise, however, that the real standout here is Glenn Howerton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) as Jim Balsillie. A ridiculous-looking man, bald except for the side of his head, he’s a hungry business mogul whose main goal is to get famous for building a business up. Howerton’s Jim is unbridled ambition, a stimulant in human form who comes across as a wannabe Gordon Gecko more than Steve Jobs’ greatest competitor. One can’t avert their eyes away from Jim, his sheer arrogance almost circling back to brilliance. This is an awards-worthy performance from start to finish, and Glenn Howerton is long overdue for his flowers.
Watching Matt Johnson’s film is akin to being in the maelstrom of the changing winds of the tech world. Surrounded by memorable supporting characters like Cary Elwes’ irritating Carl Yankowski and Michael Ironside’s gruff Charles Purdy, BlackBerry truly gets better as it goes. This pure momentum surges the story of three men with a common goal of making their mark on consumer technology. The ultimate looming specter of Apple and the iPhone, along with their combined personalities and greed, forward into a darkly satisfying finale that only cements BlackBerry as an early pick for one of the best movies of 2023. Giving the turbulent tale of one of America’s first smartphone’s rise and fall an appropriately rollicking biopic, Matt Johnson transforms what could’ve been a dry visual representation of a Wikipedia article into a mini tech epic.