Film

BlackBerry review – the ruthlessness and farce of big business

BlackBerry traces the spectacular parabola of a tiny Canadian start-up that revolutionised the mobile phone market

A man looks at his phone

Jay Baruchel as Mike Lazaridis

We are often warned that thanks to some fairly fanciful legal interpretation, US corporations have more human rights than some humans. If any cynical lawyers were looking to strengthen the case that companies are increasingly demonstrating personhood they could point to the recent trend of film biopics where the headline subject is a commercial product rather than a man, woman or child. 

The Social Network set an Oscar-winning high bar in 2010 by exploring the curdled creation of Facebook. But this year the trend has gone supernova. There have been movie dramatisations about the real-life invention and marketing of soft toys (The Beanie Bubble) computer games (Tetris), Nike sneakers (Air) and even super-spicy crisps (Flamin’ Hot). If Netflix announced they had acquired global rights for One Big Finger: The KitKat Chunky Story it feels like no-one would bat an eyelid. 

It is into this crowded cultural arena that BlackBerry emerges, tracing the spectacular parabola of a tiny Canadian start-up that revolutionised the mobile phone market. For a few insanely profitable years around the turn of the millennium, the BlackBerry corporation was an all-powerful tyrannosaurus rex of tech, blissfully unaware that an asteroid was screaming towards it in the form of Apple’s looming iPhone launch. 

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Shot in the intimate, often haphazard style of a fly-on-the-wall mockumentary, BlackBerry brilliantly communicates both the ruthlessness and farce of big business. It begins in 1996 with introverted engineer Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and his party-hearty wingman Doug Fregin (co-writer and director Matt Johnson, permanently rocking a John McEnroe headband) trying to secure funding to develop their PocketLink cellular device.  

Their terrible design sketches obscure the real innovation: with some ingenious tech judo Lazaridis has tapped into the smartphone equivalent of a gold mine. At a time when wifi was in its patchy, expensive infancy, he has invented a method of creating a reliable, portable and essentially free email device. 

It is a billion-dollar idea, and while their pitch falters it does bring Lazaridis and Fregin into the orbit of bull-headed alpha exec Jim Balsillie (a bald Glenn Howerton, almost unrecognisable from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). 

Lazaridis and Fregin’s crew of nerdy slackers is bursting with talent but already deeply in debt. Intuiting their product’s juicy potential, Balsillie offers them a personal cash injection and his own volcanic brand of boardroom rigour, so long as he is given a major stake in the company. It is a Faustian bargain but Lazaridis is smart enough to recognise that they need someone as unashamedly prickish and profit-driven as Balsillie if they ever want to be taken seriously. 

The biggest clash is between Fregin’s hedonistic team-building style and Balsillie’s remorseless push for results (it is probably just as well their nascent company does not have an HR department, as there would be some justifiable grievances). Things get heated during the frantic rush to create a physical prototype – complete with an early version of the tiny clickable keyboard that would become the BlackBerry’s signature feature – in time for a crucial pitch to telecoms giant AT&T in New York. 

That pitch – a fantastic showcase for Howerton – lays the groundwork for the BlackBerry to become a phenomenon, transforming Lazaridis, Fregin and Balsillie into very rich execs. But with his writer/director headband on, Johnson chooses to skip the champagne-and-jetski boom years, jumping ahead to 2003 when the company starts making some dodgy financial decisions and aggressive talent signings to ensure it remains on top. As the iPhone rumours begin to swirl, it becomes a painful tale of personal and professional unravelling, shot with the urgency of a thriller. 

In shareholder terms, the fall of BlackBerry was a tragedy. But even in some of its bleakest moments, BlackBerry is extremely funny, thanks to the mismatched personalities at play and the comic timing of its core cast. Some former BlackBerry employees have claimed the film fictionalises too much of its story. But as well as being fast-moving and entertaining, it seems to get to the horrible truth about corporate culture both then and now: that to succeed invariably involves sacrificing something of your soul. 

For a follow-up, perhaps Johnson could tackle another millennial tech flameout. I’d watch Sugar Rush: The Ballad of the Amstrad E-Mailer.  

Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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