SXSW Film Review: BlackBerry

The rise and fall of the original smartphone as a tragic satire

credit: IFC Films

Never underestimate the power of a great haircut to remove the immediate recognizability of an actor. It's the first trick up the sleeve of director Matt Johnson (The Dirties) to hiding his powerhouse comedy team and let them be submerged in the morally murky and ultimately ruthless tech satire of BlackBerry.

First, he attacks It's Always Sunny in Phileaelphia's Glenn Howerton with shears to give him a sharp, bald, almost tonsured look as Jim Balsillie, the money man and financial vampire behind the world-dominating growth of the BlackBerry, the original smartphone (honestly, there are moments that you'll be convinced you're staring as at a younger, hair-trigger Armin Shimerman). Then he doused Jay Baruchel with a thick dusting of silver as the prematurely-grey and seemingly milquetoast Mike Lazaridis, the disarmingly detached developer who saw the secret hidden in the bandwidth that made big data exchanges possible, and that came up with that click-click-click keyboard sound that made the BlackBerry such a tactile pleasure. Then Johnson himself disappears under greasy curls as Doug Fregin, the almost-as-talented engineer who is best friend, hype man, coattail rider, and self-appointed guardian to Lazardis.

In many ways, this is a conventional rise-and-fall tale of a company that had it all and was destroyed by the hubris of the very people who made that success possible. In this case, it's Research In Motion, a pager company in Waterloo, Ontario, that created the smartphone market, and went from stinky stacks of unsold modems to multi-billion-dollar stock value and must-have mystique, and finally into electronic obscurity across 17 volatile, fascinating, years.

But Johnson brings his grimy, grungy vérité sensibilities to bear on a story that is part The Office, part The Social Network. There's none of the calm philosophizing you might expect from a Sorkin-esque take on this, but instead a visceral, rounded look at the bizarre confluence of accidents and manipulation needed to unleash a legitimate game changer. Everyone's an asshole. Everyone's a victim. Everyone's clear-sighted and generous, and everyone's self-destructively selfish. And as for Johnson's grasp of the era in tech firms, it's astoundingly accurate, so much so that you'll swear you can smell the switch from the Sprite-and-sweaty-t-shirts years to the days of chrome and corporate art.

Inevitably, Johnson has to truncate the history a little. Tech historians make take issue with the presentation of the iPhone, rather than the Nokia Lumia as the first real competitor, and Balsillie's furious backroom war with the NHL (which is worthy of a whole miniseries) gets boiled down to a couple of meetings. But in that boil down, Johnson not only gets the story across, but finds new, fascinating narrative tricks. There's literally a door opened to reveal how much the firm has grown beyond the sweaty rented engineering office of the opening act, a reveal that shows how quickly such projects spin out of control into boom-and-bust corporations.

Johnson also avoids simple heroics: this is a merciless world, he notes, where friendships and profits are interwoven. Across time, the "we're all in this together" mentality of the seed-funding days, of overtime in maybe-money equity, pizza and movie nights, metastasizes into eternal crunch culture and companies thinking they own your soul because you were foolish enough to believe in their product. Or, as Lazaridis explains with befuddlement when asked why his staff is killing themselves for him: why wouldn't you want to make the greatest phone in the world?

But Johnson isn't simply telling a story of a Canadian success and failure. Underneath it all is a very real feeling that this will happen again. And again. And again. And probably, right now.


Narrative Spotlight, World Premiere

Wed 15, 12:30pm, Alamo Lamar D
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