Of the “brand-as-IP” films of 2023, Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry is easily the best of the lot. With humor and the crystal-clear insight of hindsight, writer-director-star Johnson depicts the rise and fall of Research In Motion, the company behind the BlackBerry, the world’s first smartphone, and the men who dreamed a technological revolution out of white noise and broadband.


Johnson limits nostalgia to the early days at RIM, when free-wheeling innovation, video games, and movie nights drive the corporate culture, but he also seeds his film with a sense of inevitability, not just that we know the iPhone-shaped doom awaiting BlackBerry in the future, but also that nothing gold can stay, that compromise is the enemy of achievement. 

Jay Baruchel stars as RIM co-founder Mike Lazaridis, the wunderkind engineer who sees a path to downsizing computers into a device that “fits in your fist”. Baruchel is fantastic, portraying Mike from his time as an industry outsider with ideas bigger than his bank account, to a cold, driven CEO who learns all the worst lessons from his deranged co-worker. Glenn Howerton stars as said deranged co-worker, Jim Balsillie, the shark-like Harvard MBA brought in to run RIM as co-CEO when Mike realizes he needs help on the business front. 


As controlled and quiet as Baruchel is, Howerton goes big and psychotically loud, portraying Balsillie as a screaming, profane, would-be tyrant who doesn’t understand the tech he’s selling but definitely understands the potential for profit. Caught between them is Matt Johnson as Doug Fregin, the RIM co-founder who clings to the youthful verve of the company even as Jim and, slowly but surely, Mike, begin to drain all the fun from it. 

Johnson co-wrote the script with Matthew Miller, adapting from the book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry. They present the story in three parts: 1996, when Mike and Doug first meet Jim Balsillie and he joins the company; 2002: when Balsillie fends off a hostile takeover attempt by Palm Inc.; and 2007, when the iPhone arrives and the BlackBerry party ends. It’s a simple but smart structure that allows the characters to age and change—or not, in Doug’s case—as success takes RIM to the heights of the Fortune 500. It’s also a structure that allows the downfall of Mike Lazaridis to emerge as the emotional core of BlackBerry.


Doug Fregin wants his innovating young adulthood to last forever, Jim Balsillie is a case study in allowing ambition and greed to overtake good sense and ethics. Mike Lazaridis SHOULD be the Platonic ideal between them, the one with his head screwed on straight, the mediating factor that navigates the path between creating space for innovation and providing structure for success. Instead, Mike goes too far in the direction of Jim, learning all the wrong lessons along the way and growing too comfortable in his position as an industry leader, and too convinced of his importance as the guy who more or less invented the smartphone. In the beginning, Mike is a likeable guy, insisting on quality engineering and construction, and valuing the contributions of his fellow engineers like Doug.

But over time, as the BlackBerry takes off and RIM becomes wildly successful, Mike changes. It’s not drastic, and Baruchel’s performance emphasizes how subtle corruption can be, especially when a person is smart enough to see all the corners they’re cutting and compromises they’re making. Mike is fully aware of what is happening to him, but he does nothing to stop it. At every opportunity, he chooses self-interest, which is the tragedy behind BlackBerry. Success and power ruin everything, from Mike’s emphasis on quality to his friendship with Doug to his own company, in the end. BlackBerry doesn’t bemoan the death spiral of RIM, there is no nostalgic wave goodbye. This isn’t a celebration, it’s an elegy.


It’s also really funny, from Howerton’s towering rages as Jim Balsillie to Johnson’s impeccable comedic timing as the office doof. The brand movies of 2023 are better than they have any right to be, but BlackBerry stands out by not being a nostalgic recounting of A Thing We Love From A Simpler Time, but a cautionary tale of how the same cycles of greed and corruption continue to play out over and over, and that creating something useful is not proof against ultimate failure. BlackBerry is a horror movie for those just trying to survive late-stage capitalism with a little dignity intact.

This review was published during the WGA strike of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of writers. Blackberry is exclusively in theaters from May 12, 2023.