Jay Baruchel as “Mike Lazaridis” and Matt Johnson as “Doug” in Matt Johnsons BlackBerry
BlackBerry stars Jay Baruchel and director/cowriter Matt Johnson. Courtesy of IFC Films

BlackBerry Is a Movie That Portrays Tech Dreams Honestly—Finally

The thing people used before they used the iPhone gets the Social Network treatment in Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton’s new movie.

It’s quaint, looking back on it now, but in the decade before iPhonesAndroids, and Samsung GalaxiesBlackBerry was the smartphone. It was dubbed the “CrackBerry,” because of the seemingly addictive hold the sleek gizmo, with its satisfyingly clicky keyboard buttons, had on the market. Kim Kardashian was glued to hers. Barack Obama ran the free world from his. And its famously secure messaging client helped international drug rings conduct businesses across the globe.

Now, it’s a relic. An also-ran. Or, as one character puts it in BlackBerry, a new movie about the early smartphone empire’s rise and fall, it’s merely “the thing people used before they used the iPhone.” But as this fresh, thoughtful comedy makes plain, BlackBerry is more than just a bleak cautionary tale. It’s a story of how tech culture, as we know it today, took root, bloomed, and died on the vine.

The movie opens with a telling title card: “The following fictionalization is inspired by real people and real events that took place in Waterloo, Ontario.” Matt Johnson, the film’s director and cowriter, shrugs it off as “a prefix designed by our lawyers.” But beyond ensuring artistic license, it also situates the film, squarely, in a sleepy town about an hour and half from Toronto. 

Before the super successful BlackBerry and its parent company, Research in Motion, revamped the region as an aspiring tech hub, Waterloo and its environs were better known for their lively farmer’s market culture and Mennonites in horse-drawn buggies.

What BlackBerry captures is the period that disrupted that, a short-lived rumpsringa in the late '90s and early aughts when the future of tech and telecommunications felt truly global. It was a period when anywhere could be the next Silicon Valley. In this sense, the titular gadget—which promised palm-of-your-hand connectivity across the globe—is, quite literally, a structuring device.

Loosely based on the 2016 book Losing the SignalBlackBerry seems at first blush like a familiar, Social Network-style drama of a company’s explosive rise. Nebbish engineer Mike Lazaridis (This Is the End’s Jay Baruchel) teams up with Jim Balsillie (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Glenn Howerton), a menacing Harvard MBA. It’s a marriage of mutual convenience, undergirded by a more Faustian logic.

With Lazaridis’ ability to exploit existing wireless infrastructure, and Balsillie’s command of boardroom politics, the pair invent, and cannily market, the modern smartphone. In one funny montage, Howerton’s Balsillie recasts his sales force (“Dead-eyed dumb fucks,” as he calls them) as actors, dispatching them to fancy restaurants and private clubs to talk loudly on their BlackBerrys, in an effort to call attention to the device. “It’s not a cell phone,” he insists. “It’s a status symbol.” 

Where Balsillie is eager to exploit the device’s appeal to a class of go-go C-suite dicks—and backdate employment contracts, and play cat-and-mouse with the SEC, and generally overpromise and underdeliver—Lazaridis is more preoccupied with the nuts-and-bolts of obsessively engineering a worthwhile product. His motto: “‘Good enough’ is the enemy of humanity.” For Baruchel (who, with great reluctance, relinquished his own vintage BlackBerry just two years ago), the film is a parable, warning about what happens “when you get so big that you’re beholden to other masters.” 

If Balsillie (“Ballsley, not Ball-silly,” he seethes) is the corporate devil on Lazaridis’ shoulder, the better, or at least geekier, angels of his nature are represented by longtime friend and cofounder, Doug Fregin. As imagined (and played by) Johnson, Doug is a hyperactive goober in wide, windshield eyeglasses and a David Foster Wallace headband. He compares Wi-Fi signals to the Force in Star Wars, pays for business lunches with cash pried out of a velcro Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wallet, and uses “Glengarry Glen Ross” as a verb.

For Johnson, pop culture is a kind of lingua franca. His cult web series turned Viceland sitcom Nirvanna the Band the Show, is riven with references and extended homages: to the Criterion Collection, Nintendo’s Wii Shop Wednesday, the rollerblading sequence set to a Prodigy track in the 1995 film Hackers. But more than a pop encyclopedia, Johnson is also a deft prober of the nerd pathology. In his feature debut, 2013’s The Dirties, he plays an alienated high schooler avenging himself on his bullies by plotting a school shooting, under the auspice of making a student film about a school shooting. “School shooting comedy” is a tough sell. But Johnson committed to the premise with verve, humor, and considerable intelligence, revealing how certain dorky defense mechanisms (from pop culture obsessiveness to irony) can curdle into out-and-out psychopathy. 

In this movie, Johnson gives the pop culture geek a fairer, more forgiving, shake. He wanted to create what he calls “the anti-Big Bang Theory,” referring to the wildly popular syndicated sitcom that he regards “detestable.” “It’s no coincidence,” he points out, “that the guys who invented the first tele-communicator were all Star Trek fanatics.”

BlackBerry’s opening credits montage situates the device as part of a longer pop culture lineage, running from Star Trek to Blade Runner, Inspector Gadget, and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. The sequence draws a direct line from the pop culture obsessives of the past and the technologists of the present. As Johnson puts it, “I don’t think the nerds of the '90s get enough credit for inventing the future.” 

BlackBerry foregrounds this industriousness. In an early, legitimately thrilling sequence, a group of pale, bespectacled engineers frantically jury-rig a smartphone prototype out of a calculator, a TV remote, a Nintendo Game Boy, and a vintage Speak & Spell. Waking up at his desk the next morning in a puddle of his own drool, Doug declares, “I had a dream we were rich.” And then, citing Dune, “And sometimes my dreams occur exactly as I dreamt them.”

But Doug’s dreams don’t materialize. Not exactly. However clever, these starry-eyed, far-sighted techies seem fatally outmatched by the realities of capital markets and corporate politicking. Balsillie sees the product foremost as a symbol of “total individualism … that fits in your fist.” The seriousness he affords the company—his marketing savvy, creative accounting, and ability to berate his underlings into submission—soon reveals itself in due course as a liability. 

While the CEOs push BlackBerry toward exponential growth, Johnson’s Doug is more concerned with holding on to the liberating, quasi-anarchic culture of tech innovation. As increasingly absurd deadlines loom, he makes a point of breaking for pizza parties, and emergency, in-office movie nights. (“They based Duke Nukem on this guy,” he chirps, pointing to Roddy Piper’s gun-toting wiseass in John Carpenter’s They Live.) Balsillie, meanwhile, writes him off as “a goof.” 

For Doug, the opportunity of making many billions of dollars does not have to run counter to a breezy atmosphere of innovation, experimentation, and goofing off. And BlackBerry is, tellingly, made in this same spirit.

Formally, BlackBerry is loose, almost improvisational. The camera roves, jitters, and pulls focus in an instant. The poppy humor and fly-on-the-wall, hyperrealist style combine in compelling ways. Imagine an Edgar Wright movie lensed like a Ken Loach film. The performances feel similarly off-the-cuff. When Howerton’s Balsillie attempts to intimidate a boardroom by howling, “I AM FROM WATERLOOOOOO! WHERE THE VAMPIRES HANG OUT!” the line feels snatched out of thin air. 

“I like when things are moving, when things are a little chaotic, when things are slightly unpredictable” says Howerton. “I think it creates an environment where you can create something that feels very real. It doesn't feel so calculated.” 

Baurchel calls Johnson’s process “organic.” He invites actors to go off-book, supplying their own reactions based on their understanding of the characters. Some in the company were less enthused by the free-form approach. Johnson recalls Mad Men alum Rich Sommer, playing a Google engineer poached to rebuild BlackBerry’s network infrastructure, becoming so exasperated with the lack of more explicit direction that he removed his microphone on-set. (The shot of Sommer mouthing wordlessly is used in the final cut, suggesting his character’s own confusion and helplessness.) 

Despite being bigger-budgeted and more broadly appealing than, say, his mockumentary about a school shooter, BlackBerry still feels intimate. Johnson reunites with a gang of fellow collaborators: writers, producers, editors, cinematographers, and a motley batch of like-minded pals who have all worked together on a string of small-scale, run-and-gun projects. There’s even a nose-thumbing, stick-it-to-the-man attitude apparent in the production’s liberal embrace of fair use copyright laws, which permit them to use extended clips from Hollywood blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark, without having to fork over hefty licensing fees.

This vaguely rebellious posture, and the value of cooperation, was Johnson’s way into BlackBerry. “The only reason I even thought this story was interesting was because I thought, oh, these guys are independent filmmakers,” he explains, “who all of a sudden get in bed with somebody who really does know how the business side of filmmaking works. And that makes major cultural changes to the way that they're going to work together as friends.”

In the age of crypto bros, fraudulent CEOs, VCs bankrolling dopey apps, and a general disillusionment with the maximally profitable, minimally inspiring realm of “innovation,” tech culture can be fairly accused of forsaking its self-professed ideals of collaboration and camaraderie. But Johnson’s keen to keep that flame alive. He has made a movie about Big Tech’s vices and vicissitudes with a team of longtime collaborators, and a cast comprised largely of Canadian character actors, recruited from his backyard. 

BlackBerry, the company, may have grown too fast, lost its pluck. But BlackBerry, the movie, is a model of how to make something at scale, without having to do the same. BlackBerry plays like the comedy equivalent of the industrious dorks pulling an all-nighter in the garage, attempting to reengineer the world in their image.

To paraphrase an old Silicon Valley chestnut, when you move fast, things break. Move too fast, and those broken things become more valuable, and more irreparable. Or, as Research In Motion cofounder Douglas Fregin (or a “fictionalization” of him) puts it, while staring out at a bland, beige, soul-dead corporate office: “I finally understand that quote: ‘When you grow up, your heart dies.’ That’s from Breakfast Club. John Hughes.”