BlackBerry Retro-Engineers the Rise and Fall of the Original Smartphone
Matt Johnson's tells the tale of a very Canadian tech crunch
Matt Johnson is inviting you to notice that he is not Aaron Sorkin, and that the paradigm-shifting CEOs of BlackBerry, the Canadian director's third film, are not Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. "People approaching our film with The Social Network and Steve Jobs in mind is definitely a boon," he said, but "right away, they'll see the style of BlackBerry is so different. In comparison to what Fincher and Boyle do, their operatic massiveness and extreme formal control, we're really telling a small, tragic, and thoroughly Canadian story."
Yes, this decade-spanning tech-corporate chronicle dials into some similar how-did-society-get-here territory to those films (namely: callous ambition, unchecked hubris, and the bromantic friendships that both lay to waste), but it builds to an ending that couldn't be less future-forward. Consider it the equivalent of a dropped call. "Apple and Facebook are two of the biggest companies in the world, but BlackBerry is the butt of a joke," Johnson laughs. "It's totally worthless today, except for people buying their stock as a meme."
The onetime Waterloo, Ontario, world-beaters in question: tinkerer savant Mike Lazaridis (an unrecognizable Jay Baruchel), arrogant marketing maverick Jim Balsillie (an even more unrecognizable Glenn Howerton), and humanistic, geek-culture-obsessed Vice President Douglas Fregin (Johnson himself). BlackBerry's story kicks off in scrappy underdog mode, re-creating the smartphone's embattled origins in the early Nineties.
Fascinatingly, Johnson largely skips the product's triumphant rise thereafter, instead zooming ahead to focus on the company's disastrous response to the 2007 launch of the iPhone. He explained, "Early on, [co-writer] Matt Miller and I realized that we were basically making a movie about work. Specifically, how men in this era treated work. Do they work to amass power? Do they work to achieve perfection? Or do they work because they enjoy it? I don't think the film is making the case that any one of those things is ultimate in terms of its sway, except to suggest that the world BlackBerry enabled – one in which you could be working all the time – is a world in which these guys thrived."
Despite the film's hyperactive, documentary-styled camerawork (a formal trademark for Johnson), BlackBerry holds a tight, even claustrophobic narrative lens. Johnson and Miller elide their characters' personal lives and largely limit the action to a succession of nerd-playground workplaces – mirroring the blinkered prognostication that was ultimately the company's downfall.
"These guys thought that they were making a fairly local and small technology that was going to be used by people in business only," Johnson says. "BlackBerry changed telecommunications and was ahead of the curve in a major way, but these men did not have a world-changing vision for their product in the way that most of these capitalist technologist tycoons really do."
Not lacking in perspective, however, is Johnson. There's a reason the cult-favorite director has brought all of his films and TV shows to Austin festivals. "The Dirties won the big prize at Fantastic Fest in 2013, and in many ways that set off my career," Johnson gushes. "I owe the city a deep, deep debt."
North American Premiere
Mon 13, 2:30pm, Zach Theatre
Wed 15, 12:30pm, Alamo South Lamar