M, 120 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This tale is one for our fast-changing times. It is about how a small technology innovator got together with a hard-headed entrepreneur to create a cool gadget that commanded nearly half of the smartphone market, before emerging rivals stepped in. Leaving it without any skin in the game today.

The story of the smartphone built by a small Canadian IT company, really gives you pause. The Blackberry might sound like history, but it was only a recent 12 years ago that it dominated the market. It is astonishing to realise that the cute little clamshell device with buttons that clicked, was once an item that every second person had to have, before the iPhone and the Androids took over.

I was curious about how this could happen, how things worked in the fiercely competitive smartphone market. Although the film has a grungy casual feel and is careful to present itself as a version of the facts, it tells quite a story. The screenplay is the work of Canadian writer-director Matt Johnson with Sean Silcoff and Jacquie McNish.

Johnson also plays the part of Doug Fregin, an engineer who was one of the start-up founders. With his good friend from school, Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel), he founded Research In Motion in the 1990s, where they made email pagers.

A telling tale of an early smartphone, that gives you pause

They and the team weren’t under great pressure at their offices in Waterloo, near Toronto. Having earned a multi-million contract with a US robotics company, there seemed to be some space to rove around the internet as they followed their nerdy passions, and organize in-office movie nights featuring Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars or Dune, with pizza and popcorn.

Then a tough Harvard MBA grad entered their working lives. Concerned about RIM’s financial position, Mike had connected with a businessman, Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), who was hungry for a deal that would lift him out of his desperate financial position. Unannounced, he arrived at the Waterloo offices in time to see a man in tank top and red headband parading around with a toilet plunger. A sign of his company’s stalled financial state, if nothing else. Meet Doug, the firm’s irrepressible co-founder.

If Fregin is goofy and anarchic, Lazaridis is timid and self-effacing, but Balsillie feels he has something to work with, a team capable of product innovation that he can take and pitch to the boardrooms. He bullies Doug and Mike and all the R&D folk to push through and give him something that he can sell and restore his fortune. The result is the Blackberry smartphone.

Innovation, one of the movie’s themes, is given a human face in Doug and Mike. I may once have thought it far-fetched, but I take on board the connection the film wants to make between nerdy tech culture and imagining our future world.

Some of us were vaguely aware that the BlackBerry, a smartphone that pioneered wireless email, was a Canadian invention. And that it was with us one moment then gone the next, the moment the market went to Apple and the Androids, and corporate interests in Silicon Valley and overseas.

An occasionally cartoonish tone that does the film no favours

The script, that is partly drawn from Silcoff and McNish’s book of 2016 about the product’s spectacular rise and fall, Losing the Signal, is interesting but some other aspects of the film are heavily drawn. It makes a point of its characters’ total lack of business acumen, especially in the early scenes, character traits that seem over-played. Howerton, prone to temper tantrums and ruthlessly cut-throat, also seem over-drawn.

Another issue is the distracting camerawork as it moves around clumsily and suddenly pulls focus. While we can appreciate the spirit of the filmmakers, wanting to harmonise the content of their film with its style, they needed more discipline. Not that I’m suggesting it should be another Social Network or a Jobs, but that the occasionally cartoonish feel does the film no favours.

The film’s end notes are telling, as endnotes so often are. We see that the ways that Doug and Mike apparently responded to the challenge that the iPhone and the Androids presented were each quite different, and it had a strong impact on their company’s future. It’s one explanation among many for the demise of the Blackberry, a gizmo everyone was once crazy for.

First published in the Canberra Times on 19 August 2023. Also published at Rotten Tomatoes