A throwaway shot at the beginning of Canadian actor-director Matt Johnson’s film “BlackBerry” of a car passing a horse sets the trajectory for this humorous but cautionary “based on real events” look at the rise and precipitous fall of what was once the world’s most sought-after smartphone.
In the film, which had its world premiere this week in competition at the 73rd Berlin Berlinale, Canadian actor Jay Baruchel plays brilliant engineering nerd Mike Lazaridis and Johnson is his movie-fan programmer sidekick Doug, co-inventors of a ground-breaking device which packaged a miniature computer and a cleverly designed miniature keyboard into a portable telephone. As they drive in their battered Japanese car to pitch their invention to a potential investor, they pass a horse heading in the same direction. Cue the metaphor: the BlackBerry, which once had 45 percent of the world market in smartphones, was overtaken by the iPhone and Samsung and now has a zero market share, the film tells us at the end.
Based on the bestselling 2015 book “Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry” by reporters Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff of the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, the film charts what happens when Mike and Doug, whose Research in Motion (RIM) startup works out of a storefront in Waterloo, Ontario, meet up with the BMW-driving, sharp-suited shark Jim Balsillie, portrayed by Glenn Howerton of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”
Balsillie, played with much the same sharp-elbowed intensity that Jeremy Strong brings to the Kendall Roy character in HBO’s “Succession”, knows from the get-go as they make their presentation in his office that the two tech bros have no business sense and are sitting ducks for people like himself. He turns them down flat, but Balsillie later realises, after his own sharp practices get him fired from the job that afforded him the BMW, that Mike and Doug could be on to something. What the pair invented was a transformational device that took what was then a simple, transportable phone, made by the likes of Nokia and Motorola, and made it into an office away from home. It had a distinctive keyboard that, by emitting a click sound with each keystroke, became the BlackBerry’s calling card. The phone was so popular and addictive people called it a “Crackberry”.
The film charts how Balsillie – who is very sensitive about how his name is pronounced – and Lazaridis, as co-CEOs, make a seemingly doomed pitch for the phone to AT&T execs in New York City. It’s ill-starred because the sleep-deprived Lazaridis, who was up the previous night finishing the prototype, leaves it in the taxi from the airport. Miraculously the box with the prototype reappears, a blackberry stain on Lazaridis’s shirt gives Balsillie an inspiration for a name and AT&T goes for it.
The rest is, as the saying goes, a history which sees Balsillie flying hither and thither in Gulfstreams, to raid Google and Microsoft of their top engineers, backdated stock options to get those engineers on board, RIM expanding to include an employee cast of thousands and film-buff Doug quoting Gordon Gecko lines from Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” to describe the malevolence going on.
It ends in a sea of calamities, with the main iceberg being Steve Jobs’s unveiling of the iPhone, with its sleek screen and virtual keyboard – an invention that Lazaridis dismisses out of hand, but which the world adopted hand over fist. Meanwhile, Balsillie becomes more and more obsessed with buying an NHL hockey team from the U.S. and moving it to Canada, ignoring phone calls from the U.S. regulatory Securities and Exchange Commission, which is wise to those backdated stock options.
It’s all very entertaining, but with an underlying warning for today’s techies. Many of them are too young to have owned a BlackBerry, but they are discovering as today’s tech firms shed tens of thousands of jobs that, like RIM of yore, what goes up must come down.
Other thoughts on the Berlinale:
We’re only three days into the Berlinale’s first post-Covid, full attendance, mostly maskless festival but already I think there is a hands-down winner for the most chilling opening scene.
Dutch-Australian director Rolf de Heer’s “The Survival of Kindness” opens with a party attended by white people, all of whom are wearing World War One-style gas masks and who speak mostly in incomprehensible grunts. The party centrepiece is what at first looks like a miniature model of an African village which has suffered a grisly atrocity, with tiny bodies strewn on the ground outside the huts. It’s unclear what it is until someone picks up a cake knife and cuts a big slice of what turns out to be rich chocolate cake — a cake with atrocity frosting.
Starring the brilliant Australian actress Mwajemi Hussein, de Heer’s film is a wrenching, allegorical look at the brutality of racism and the healing balm of kindness in a desolate, desert-like world that is suffering from a plague that makes people break out in bloody sores and cough themselves to death. The catch is that it apparently affects white people. Blacks seem to be mostly immune and, presumably, are all the more hated for it.
We first meet Hussein when she is is trapped by the gas-mask-wearing grunters in an animal cage mounted on a trailer which they drive into the desert, unhitch and abandon there. She seems doomed to be scorched and starved in the blinding sun, but ingenuity triumphs over the scorpions that are waiting to eat her corpse.
The freed Hussein navigates the world outside the cage like Dante making his way through hell, but with only her beaming and curative smile to guide her. Shoes, who has them and how to get them, for traversing the stony desert landscape, are a recurring image. As are images of dead people barely covered in shallow graves, hung from windows or bridges, Blacks in cages being stoned by white people, and people in general being gunned down. Hussein shows her kindness by covering up some of the unburied dead, by giving a dying white man a tin can filled with water, and by leading a dying teenage girl who has caught the plague to a place of beauty to see in her final moments.
This is not viewing for the faint of heart, or for those who want all the pieces to fit together neatly. But for anyone who is concerned that racism is humanity’s fatal wound for which there may be no cure, this is a film that will fuel the debate.
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And now a word from International Jury President, actress Kristen Stewart, whose panel will be awarding the Golden Bear and other accolades to the winning competition films, when asked at a jury press conference on Thursday to name her favourite international films:
“Yeah, wow. You know, it’s like I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t watch movies,’” she said, anticipating how her answer could be interpreted. “To be honest, I don’t want to take up time sitting here fumbling around and reaching for titles and filmmakers. I’m so sorry I don’t have like the greatest answer to your question, but I do I kind of want to unpack the libraries of everyone sitting next to me,” she said, referring to her co-panelists. “That’s something that’ll be fun to do. But yeah, sorry, I’m a loser, I don’t have like a great list of stock filmmakers in my pocket for you.”
She might have thought to include her own work with Juliette Binoche in French director Olivier Assayas’s “Clouds of Sils Maria” from 2014. Enigmatic, Nietzchean by association, and unforgettable.
By Michael Roddy