In the past few years, the docudrama has sunk under the weight of too many all-star HBO movies about current events barely out of the 24-hour news cycle (the Jay Roach approach) and sanctimonious prestige pictures in which A-list filmmakers warp the reality of historical events to make dubious connections to our current times (the Aaron Sorkin approach). So this scrappy little Canadian picture is a welcome shake-up for a genre that works best when it plays fast and loose with the facts in order to capture the truthful essence of an interesting chapter in history.
Director Matt Johnson tells the story of how the world's first smartphone was invented, how it became the ubiquitous tech gadget for a brief period of time, and how it was almost as instantly forgotten and relegated to the dustbin of history after the invention of the iPhone. Using the book Losing the Signal by journalists Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff as a jumping-off point, Johnson and his frequent collaborator Matthew Miller create an uproariously funny satire of the world of tech start-ups and corporate culture. The film follows two real-life entrepreneurs; nerdy innovator Mike Lazaridis, played by Jay Baruchel (Knocked Up, Tropic Thunder, This Is the End) and fiercely competitive wannabe-shark tycoon Jim Balsillie, played by Glenn Howerton (of the long-running satirical TV show It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Mike and his goofball partner Douglas Fregin (played by director Johnson) are the guys who figured out how to send data over existing cellphone networks so as to enable portable handheld devices to send and receive emails. Jim is the Harvard-educated businessman who transformed Mike and Doug's team of disorganized, post-adolescent nerds into one of the most successful game-changing companies in recent history. Baruchel and Howerton disappear completely into their roles with Oscar-worthy comedic turns. They head up an outstanding ensemble of mostly Canadian actors, including Michael Ironside, Saul Rubinek, Michelle Giroux, Martin Donovan, and Cary Elwes, all of whom are deftly utilized.
Johnson's prior work is mostly made in the mockumentary style, and many trappings of that approach are present in this film, especially in Jared Raab’s frenetic handheld cinematography. It's easy to see how Blackberry could have been made as a tighter, shorter, and vastly inferior version of itself had Johnson chosen to go all the way down that road. But rather than rely on the lazy, tedious, creatively bankrupt techniques of an omniscient TV-reporter-like narrator, straight-to-camera fake interviews and testimonials, or the ironic juxtaposition of a characters' perceptions of reality with the viewer's perception of reality, Blackberry places its audience in the rooms and practically in the minds of its protagonists. We learn who they are and what they're trying to do not by what they say to the audience, but by how they interact with each other, which is both funnier and more substantive and satisfying. Think In the Loop rather than The Office.
The combination of national pride in these tenacious underdogs from Waterloo, Ontario creating a technology that forever changed the world and schadenfreude at the hubris of these selfsame upstarts makes Blackberry a distinctly Canadian picture. It plays like a stoner comedy that astutely comments on the corrosive ways capitalism squelches innovation in favor of profit. Avoiding the cold aloofness of The Social Network, the condescending smugness of The Big Short, or the aggressive hypocrisy of The Wolf of Wall Street, Johnson delivers a first-rate docudrama about big business that plays more like a great farce than an overblown biopic.
With outstanding performances and laugh-out-loud humor, Matt Johnson's scrappy blend of satire and docudrama captures the unlikely rise and catastrophic downfall of the world's first smartphone