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29 September 2023

Why make a film about the BlackBerry?

In Matt Johnson’s film about the vanished electronic device, we all know what’s to come: the iPhone.

By Ann Manov

On learning of the existence of the film BlackBerry, my initial reaction was confusion. Why would someone make a movie about a vanished electronic device? I can recall the enthusiasm of a few kids at high school for their BlackBerrys, with their demonstrative clicking noises on the school bus. But the sentiment does not appear to have endured, and traces of nostalgia for this dead end in smartphone history are hard to find. The film-makers do not avoid the reality some might find unpleasant: the BlackBerry and its creators were not victims of corporate perfidy or cruel fate – rather, the BlackBerry was suddenly replaced by the iPhone.

Why, then, this movie? The opening credits include the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and other Canadian government groups, suggesting this film is a by-product of the Canadian state’s bizarre celebration of its own mediocrity. Or as its Canadian director, Matt Johnson, has said: “There is a defiant scrappiness of being Canadian, and wanting people to know we’ve done a few good things.”

The film begins with archival footage of Arthur C Clarke scrying the future that we live in: “Men will be freed from the constraints of their desk and will… work from anywhere.” That this became true for a few people in the world’s richest countries a decade after BlackBerry left the scene blurs the relevance of this observation. As this footage cuts to a 1990s Japanese hatchback screaming into an industrial park, driven by a Judah Friedlander impersonator and a young man in a blond wig, it becomes clear: this is one of those movies.

You know the type: films such as The Big Short and The Social Network, TV shows such as WeCrashed. They take notorious business stories and repackage them as frenetic, character-driven comic dramas. Sometimes, as with The Big Short, this succeeds. At other times, it fails.

[See also: Dumb Money is a monument to American greed]

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It seems the film-makers were not clear on what kind of movie they had in mind: it veers between a mockumentary style, with hand-held camerawork à la The Office, and a more conventional narrative approach. Glenn Howerton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) plays James Balsillie, who crashes into the floundering start-up created by Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Douglas Fregin (Johnson, the film’s director and co-writer). The confusing tonal mix is amplified by the rubbery bald cap Howerton wears and Baruchel’s ridiculous grey wig: more Dumb and Dumber than prestige drama.

The film is rough going at first: much time is spent on the antics of Fregin, dressed in a tank top and headband, with giant glasses and a shock of curled hair. We’re meant, I suppose, to see scenes of the start-up’s hacker bohemia – movie nights and workday video-game marathons – as a vanished Arcadia. A recurring joke is Fregin’s habit of making a sincere and weighty utterance, only to then reference the 1980s franchise it came from: an unintentional act of meta-commentary on the formulaic nature of the film itself.

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The rest of the movie is more straightforward. First things look bad, then they are good, then really good, and then, finally, bad again. Any tension in the film’s narrative arc is tempered by the audience’s knowledge of what’s to come: failure and dissolution. The characters are thinly sketched stereotypes (with the exception of Howerton, who it is hard not to like in any role). This is the kind of movie you would watch on a plane without complaint, then utterly forget.

The appeal of these tech dramas is in learning of the strangeness of the boffins who remade our world: Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. But these characters are a distortion of the people they portray. Lazaridis, here stringy and socially incompetent, is actually nothing of the sort. Balsillie, here a wannabe Wall Street psychopath, is a bland Canadian. As a former employee told the National Post, the real Fregin wore “no white tank top or orange headband”; there was no “ping-pong tables, Nerf guns, or acting like children”. Johnson is, I suspect, aware of this: the film often seems more like a send-up of tech drama than a sincere attempt at it.

The characters at the centre of BlackBerry are not interesting; the BlackBerry story itself is not interesting. It’s as if our lives have shrunk down to the size of our phones, and our capacity for wonder has shrivelled with them. Addicted to our screens and their streams of “content”, we are transfixed by the simplest narratives, concerned only with the familiar – a phone we recall from ten years ago – rather than the imagined. This is, of course, the world the iPhone wrought.

“BlackBerry” is in cinemas 6 October

[See also: Ken Loach’s turn to sentimentality]

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This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power