A Review by Alvin G. Burstein
BlackBerry premiered February 2023 at the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival. Although it won no awards there, following its release to theatres and its on-line streaming, it attracted a great deal of positive comment. Directed by Matt Johnson, who also played one of the three main characters, Doug Fregin, the film is obviously a critical success. Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregator reported an astonishing 98% positive reviews by critics and an impressive 91% positive comments by viewers, and CBS announced that it planned a mini-series using an augmented version of the film in the Fall of2023.
Many of the reviews remarked on the film’s humor, others saw it as a political critique of capitalism in the mode of The Wolf of Wall Street. Intrigued, I found it on Amazon Prime. I thought it, despite comedic elements, deeply tragic.
In what may be a Jungian synchronicity in 1946, Dick Tracy, Chet Goulds’s comic strip detective, Dick Tracy, adopted a mobile two-way communication device, the wrist radio, anticipating a host of communication devices.
In 1973, Martin Cooper, the head of the communications division of Motorola made the first mobile phone call on Sixth Avenue in New York City, using Motorola’s brick-sized device. In 1996, U. S. Robotics introduced Palm Pilot, a PDA (personal digital assistant). BlackBerry, combining the functions of a PDA and a cell phone emerged in 1999, and by 2011 had acquired 85 million users. This film is basically a biopic describing the BlackBerry’s emergence and its 2016 death—and telling us about the people involved in its meteoric rise and fall.
Research In Motion LLC (RIM) was a Canadian firm manufacturing electronic gear, led by Mike Lazardis (played by Jay Baruchel), and Doug Fregin (played by Matt Johnson). These two entrepreneurs had assembled a madcap group of workers and had resolved to build a
device that would combine the functions of a PDA (personal digital assistant) and mobile phone, encrypting the data and minimizing the electronic traffic. They cobbled together a prototype device, and, seeking funds to begin manufacture, approached the third main character, Jim Balsillie, a corporate shark, played by Glenn Howerton.
The film opens with Lazardis and Fregin nervously awaiting an interview with Balsillie in the latter’s office. Lazardis is nervous and rattled by a noise coming from an electronic device on Balsillie’s desk. He opens it, notes that it was made in China, “the Mark of the Beast,” and repairs it using a paper clip as tool. When Balsillie arrives he shows no interest in their device, and the partners leave, crushed. A few days later, however, Balsillie arrives at RIM and announces that he will invest in their device if he is awarded a major interest in the infant firm and co-CEO status. Overriding Fregin’s concerns, Lazaridis agrees.
Balsillie aggressively reshapes the organization, ultimately diverting Lazaridis’s attention from the quality of the product to a focus on the acquisition of customers. To meet the needs of the exploding numbers, Balsillie also recruits engineering superstars, using back-dated stock options, and office managers who convert the mad-cap but dedicated staff into
frightened wage slaves. Disgusted, Fregin leaves the company.
BlackBerry becomes a major player in the PDA/cell phone field, but, increasingly plagued by mainframe overloads, service failures and increasing supply demands, Lazaradis is ultimately persuaded by Balsillie too outsource manufacture of the device to China.
When Apple’s iphone, with a keyboard on its screen, hits the market, BlackBerry plummeted. The film depicts federal agents launching inquiries into illicit stock option arrangements and Balsillie’s foiled attempts to acquire a hockey team to move to Ontario diverting his attention from BlackBerry. The final scenes show Lazardis throwing Balsillie to the wolves to avoid prosecution, and then, surrounded by boxes of myriad defective BlackBerries bearing the Mark of the Beast, absorbed in an impossible task of—one by one—repairing them.
Lazardis is like Icarus in Greek mythology, whose waxen wings melted when he ignored his father, Daedelus’ advice, and exhilarated, flew too close to the sun, melting his wings and
plunging to his death. Hubris, error rooted in pride, that Aristotle saw as the core of tragedy, had swept Lazardis to his doom.
In this biopic, the director opted to screen chyrons describing the outcome for the protagonists: Lazardis resigns from RIM; Balsillie also avoids prison; Fragin, having sold his stock at BlackBerry’s peak, is a billionaire.