We’ve seen a real upswing lately in the production of How They Did This Thing movies – dramas that promise a fast, funny, warts-and-all portrait of how something we all once loved, Back in the Day, came to be. It began more than a decade ago, with The Social Network, followed in earnest a few years later by Network screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs, but this spring alone has seen the release of Tetris, AIR, and now Blackberry, Matt Johnson’s “fictionalization,” per the opening titles, “inspired by real people and events,” of the rise and fall of the world’s first smartphone. These films are fairly transparent nostalgia plays, for products rather than IP, which should be more crass and offensive, but somehow isn’t? I guess? They certainly seem to allow for a bit more ingenuity and wit; if this is as close to adult-friendly mid-budget prestige dramas as we’re going to get these days, well, so be it.
The screenplay, adapted from the book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of Blackberry by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, takes the Steve Jobs model, telling its story in three discrete movements: the invention of the Blackberry and ascension of the company, in 1996; their successful ward-off of a hostile takeover attempt by Palm Pilot, in 2003; and the undoing of the company in 2007-2008, thanks to the introduction of the iPhone and an SEC investigation. It was a whirlwind of activity, a period of incredible innovation and wealth that culminated in a footnote – near the end, Blackberry’s head of marketing predicts, “We’re gonna go from the number one phone in the world to that phone people had before they had an iPhone,” and he’s not wrong.
But in terms of tone, Johnson constructs something that’s more like a cross between Social Network with Silicon Valley – an irreverent approach, with a wild comic sensibility and fairly broad comic characterizations, mostly keying off the awkwardness of engineers and similar tech types. (As ever, one must find ways to make dudes coding into compelling cinema.) The opening scenes present us with a trio of prickly, disparate character types, and compellingly spends much of the first act bouncing them off each other. We have Mike Lazardis (Jay Baruschel) and Doug Fregin (played by Johnson himself), the co-founders of “Research in Motion, Ltd,’ pitching their product to businessman Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton). Mike is the boy genius who barely raises his voice, Doug is all bluster, bragging about their big deals while cracking open the Velcro on his TMNT wallet, and Jim is a hard-nosed, ball-busting business guy, tossed like a grenade into a scrum of slackers and weirdos when he joins the company as Mike’s co-CEO (“HEY!” he bellows, while trying to make a call, “GET OFF THE FUCKING INTERNET!”).
Jim and Mike differ, and wildly, on a central business philosophy. The latter, who knows fuck-all about the tech Mike is crafting, just wants the product fast enough to deliver on the big-money deals he’s making, asks,“Have you ever heard the expression ‘perfect is the enemy of good’?” Mike’s retort is pointed: “Well, good enough is the enemy of humanity.” And there are ups and downs and outside forces and inner demons, but that difference of opinion proves, in no small way, to be what signals the company’s end before it’s even begun.
Baruchel does quietly marvelous work as this tricky and jagged character; it’s primarily an internal and physical performance, so you can feel the electricity as he’s finally putting his baby out into the world, and the heartache in the look on his face as he watches Steve Jobs’s iPhone keynote, knowing it’s all over. And then, in a real turn, we watch what happens when the quiet genius misses the boat: he goes into an absolute tailspin. (“I created this entire product class!” he roars, at an important meeting with their biggest client. “I created this entire fucking market!”) Howerton is especially good in a polar opposite role as braying, power-grabbing jackass, conveying genuine power and danger while barking nonsensical business wisdom like “Never take drinks. Thirst is a display of weakness.” It’s kind of a brilliant performance, the actor relishing the opportunity to play an absolute asshole who you’re still kinda pulling for (until you’re not). In smaller roles, Cary Elwes is powerfully oily as the head of Palm Pilot, Michael Ironside is chilling as the company’s thuggish, late-period COO, and any filmmaker with the good sense to bring in Saul Rubinek as a three-scene gunslinger deserves all of our accolades.
As the goofball (but conscience-heavy) Fregin, Johnson is a comic dynamo, roaring through his scenes like a bulldozer. He’s similarly impressive as a filmmaker – skilled at manipulating audience emotion (I heard a whole room gasp at a close-up of a case in a cab, and you probably will too), seeing the laughs when they’re coming and seizing them. Each section is progressively less silly and more tense, as it should be; he manages those tonal shifts adroitly. He previously directed the wildly different but very fine Operation Avalanche and The Dirties, and if those films didn’t confirm him as one to watch, this one definitely will.
“Blackberry” is in theaters Friday.