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A new film explains how the smartphone market slipped through BlackBerry's hands

Jay Baruchel plays Research In Motion co-CEO Mike Lazaridis in the film<em> BlackBerry.</em>
IFC Films
Jay Baruchel plays Research In Motion co-CEO Mike Lazaridis in the film BlackBerry.

Like a lot of people, I'm a longtime iPhone user — in fact, I used an iPhone to record this very review. But I still have a lingering fondness for my very first smartphone — a BlackBerry — which I was given for work back in 2006. I loved its squat, round shape, its built-in keyboard and even its arthritis-inflaming scroll wheel.

Of course, the BlackBerry is now no more. And the story of how it became the hottest personal handheld device on the market, only to get crushed by the iPhone, is told in smartly entertaining fashion in a new movie simply titled BlackBerry.

Briskly adapted from Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff's book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, this is the latest of a few recent movies, including Tetris and Air, that show us the origins of game-changing new products. But unlike those earlier movies, BlackBerry is as much about failure as it is about success, which makes it perhaps the most interesting one of the bunch.

It begins in 1996, when Research In Motion is just a small, scrappy company hawking modems in Waterloo, Ontario. Jay Baruchel plays Mike Lazaridis, a mild-mannered tech whiz who's the brains of the operation. His partner is a headband-wearing, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-loving goofball named Douglas Fregin, played by Matt Johnson, who also co-wrote and directed the movie.

Johnson's script returns us to an era of VHS tapes and dial-up internet, when the mere idea of a phone that could handle emails — let alone games, music and other applications — was unimaginable. That's exactly the kind of product that Mike and Doug struggle to pitch to a sleazy investor named Jim Balsillie, played by a raging Glenn Howerton, from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Jim knows very little about tech but senses that the Research In Motion guys might be onto something, and he joins their ragtag operation and tries to whip their slackerish employees into shape. And so, after a crucial deal with Bell Atlantic, later to be known as Verizon, the BlackBerry is born. And it becomes such a hit, so addictive among users, that people start calling it the "CrackBerry."

The time frame shifts to the early 2000s, with Research In Motion now based in a slick new office, with a private jet at its disposal. But the mix of personalities is as volatile as ever — sometimes they gel, but more often they clash.

Mike, as sweetly played by Baruchel, is now co-CEO, and he's still the shy-yet-stubborn perfectionist, forever tinkering with new improvements to the BlackBerry, and refusing to outsource the company's manufacturing operations to China. Jim, also co-CEO, is the Machiavellian dealmaker who pulls one outrageous stunt after another, whether he's poaching top designers from places like Google or trying to buy a National Hockey League team and move it to Ontario. That leaves Doug on the outside looking in, trying to boost staff morale with Raiders of the Lost Ark movie nights and maintain the geeky good vibes of the company he started years earlier.

As a director, Johnson captures all this in-house tension with an energetic handheld camera and a jagged editing style. He also makes heavy use of a pulsing synth score that's ideally suited to a tech industry continually in flux.

The movie doesn't entirely sustain that tension or sense of surprise to the finish; even if you don't know exactly how it all went down in real life, it's not hard to see where things are headed. Jim's creative accounting lands the company in hot water right around the time Apple is prepping the 2007 launch of its much-anticipated iPhone. That marks the beginning of the end, and it's fascinating to watch as BlackBerry goes into its downward spiral. It's a stinging reminder that success and failure often go together, hand in thumb-scrolling hand.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.
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