Berlinale 2023: 'BlackBerry' is a Very Geeky Story of RIM's Rise & Fall
by Alex Billington
February 17, 2023
Another story of nerdy kids who build some innovative technology that goes on to change the world – until it grows too big for them to handle and they lose control of it all. It's a pretty common story these days, and almost always makes for captivating entertainment, even if we already know what's going to happen. That's exactly the case with BlackBerry, a new Canadian film from director Matt Johnson which is premiering in the main competition at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival. It's a bit of an odd pick for this fest, but it's a good film nonetheless. It's not at all experimental or innovative, which is totally fine; it's a decidedly linear and straight-forward story about the guys who created the BlackBerry cell phone. It was invented by a group of very geeky Canadian men who ran a little company called Research in Motion (aka RIM). After taking on an aggressive co-CEO from the business world, things quickly took off, and the rest is history, etc. Another Icarus story about nerds – and one mega asshole businessman – flying too high once they achieved success.
Canadian director Matt Johnson is known for his very shaggy, low budge indie films - his best creation so far is Operation Avalanche, a 2016 film about an Apollo moon landing conspiracy. It premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival (watch the trailer) but had a hard time finding a wider audience outside the festival circuit. I'm glad that Johnson is back with BlackBerry, his first feature since that one, and has been given a chance to shine in the spotlight of the Berlin Film Festival. I hope, regardless of other reviews and opinions on the film, it will give him the opportunity to keep making more films with his distinctly nerdy tone and grainy style. Above all, I enjoy how geeky his films are – especially when they end up in the mainstream like BlackBerry. The film has a vibe similar to The Social Network, though much more chaotic and tech nerdy. It also has a similar structure and tone to Aaron Sorkin's Steve Jobs from 2015. I might even say that this is Canada's Steve Jobs movie, with the portrayal of co-founders Mike Lazaridis & Douglas Fregin coming across very similar to the way Steve Jobs & Steve Wozniak of Apple are portrayed in the other Sorkin movie.
It's also no surprise that BlackBerry is a bit rough around the edges, too. The camerawork is reminiscent of Sorkin's kinetic, follow-them-closely-everywhere style established in "West Wing", with occasional close-ups and hand-held sweeps that distract from the story being told. It's also a tad more generic than expected - it follows Mike and Doug as they try to build good products, while being yelled at by an abusive yet somehow effective co-CEO that doesn't seem to really care about the products. Profit vs people, product vs sales, all of that, which is pretty common to see in most stories about businesses from the 80s onward. These geeky guys may have been geniuses, and they may have been really good at creating the first few BlackBerry models, but eventually the business grew so big that shady, shitty "businessmen" had to get involved – and they were responsible for turning the workplace atmosphere of RIM toxic. In this film, Jay Baruchel stars as Mike, with its director Matt Johnson (amazingly) co-starring as Doug, both convincing and captivating in their roles. Their nemesis / business partner, Jim Balsillie, is played by Glenn Howerton with such a psychotic fierceness (with foul language in almost every scene) that it's almost too abrasive to watch in some scenes.
As far as I can tell, Howerton is just being accurate; his performance capturing the extreme irritability and bitterness within him. He resorts to yelling to get anything done, and all the underling RIM employees just accept it. Ultimately, it seem this portrayal and the overall story of RIM as told in this BlackBerry movie is to remind us, once again, how horrible corporate culture is. How it sucks the life & soul out of everyone who gets sucked into it. How it ruins good things and good ideas just so that some big wigs in a board room can make more money. This is nothing new, and it's a story told so many times by now, I'm waiting for someone to show us how going down a different path can be more beneficial. Johnson's BlackBerry is full on geeky satisfying, with nerds front and center throughout. It's a damning yet oddly inspiring story of techies being disruptive and making something great that does have an impact on society. But it's also another film about the inevitable downfall, how money and the pursuit of more poisons even good people. Long live the geeks.
Alex's Berlinale 2023 Rating: 8 out of 10
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