wed 28/02/2024

BlackBerry review - the nerds versus The Man | reviews, news & interviews

BlackBerry review - the nerds versus The Man

BlackBerry review - the nerds versus The Man

The tragicomic saga of Canada's world-beating smartphone

Communication breakdown: Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton)

Nothing goes out of date like new technology. Who now remembers how plain old Alan Sugar brought word-processing to the masses with the Amstrad PCW 8256, or how the Psion 5 was for a moment the last word in personal organisers?

BlackBerry transports us back to the intoxicating rise and calamitous fall of the eponymous smartphone, designed by the Canadian company Research In Motion and which first appeared in 1999. The term “CrackBerry” – coined to describe the gadget’s addictive properties – was Webster’s Dictionary’s Word of 2006, and celebs from Leonardo di Caprio to Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift adored it. Lana Del Ray wrote a song about it. Barack Obama’s BlackBerry did indeed seem to exert a fentanyl-like hold over him.

By 2011 BlackBerry had 85 million subscribers worldwide, yet by 2016 the company had given up making phones and had licensed the BlackBerry name to various outside manufacturers. Its fate was sealed by the two-pronged assault of the iPhone as well as the rise of the Android operating system, and the BlackBerry earned the uncharitable sobriquet of “the phone people had before they had an iPhone”. Today, it’s almost like the BlackBerry never happened.

But with BlackBerry, the movie, writer and director Matt Johnson aims to make sure the device gets its just rewards in the annals of mobile communications, not to mention human endeavour. A proud Canadian, Johnson has teamed up with fellow-Canucks Matt Miller (producer) and Jay Baruchel to tell the story of how the BlackBerry was created by Research In Motion at their base in Waterloo, Ontario. It was a classic tale of the nerds versus The Man, as Mike Lazaridis (Baruchel) and Douglas Fregin (Johnson) hit upon the brilliant notion of a pocketable gizmo which could exploit hitherto unused wireless network capacity to deliver email.

However, though the duo were never happier than when exploring new horizons on Planet Tech, they had as much business acumen as Daffy Duck. As depicted here, the RIM headquarters (pictured above) was more like a chaotic playroom full of geeks than an intensely-focused engine room of research and innovation. The team’s regular movie nights in the office were like frat parties, while Fregin, in his tee-shirts and bandana, viewed the universe through the prism of his obsession with Star Wars and fantasy comics. The company seemed to have a collective mental age of about 13.

Hence, rather like an unruly pop group in need of an unscrupulous svengali to take them up the charts, RIM was ripe for the picking by hard-boiled business hustler Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton). A Harvard Business School graduate who’d been a big cheese at the Ontario construction company Sutherland-Schultz, Balsillie bought into RIM and set about bringing impetus and market awareness to proceedings. In place of Lazaridis’s obliviousness to commercial realities – there’s a droll little scene where it’s revealed that RIM hasn’t noticed that it hasn’t been paid for a huge consignment of modems it sold to US Robotics – Balsillie brought a bruising take-no-prisoners approach, though the real-life Balsillie has commented that his portrayal in the film is “five per cent accurate and 95 per cent made up”.

We see him beating off an attempt at a hostile takeover by Palm Inc’s boss Carl Yankowski (Cary Elwes), and luring Google engineer John Stannos (Rich Sommer) to RIM with a $10m stock offer which will later be found to have been illegal. Balsillie’s methods worked, and by the mid-2000s BlackBerry controlled more than half of the global smartphone market. But the writing is plastered all over the wall by the time we see Balsillie making a desperate dash to JFK airport to try to persuade mobile network AT&T’s boss to stay on board with BlackBerry and not rush into the arms of Steve Jobs and his iPhone.

Business-orientated stories don’t always make great entertainment, but BlackBerry works through its eccentric mix of characters (with Saul Rubinek and Michael Ironside adding some extra thespian heft), droll screenplay and the inherent drama of its vertiginous rise-and-fall storyline. Maybe everyone should watch it on a smartphone.

Maybe everyone should watch it on a smartphone

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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