A new film explains how the smartphone market slipped through BlackBerry's hands
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "BlackBerry" recounts the dramatic rise and fall of the Canadian tech company that led the smartphone revolution in the late '90s and early 2000s before the iPhone came along. It was directed and co-written by Matt Johnson, who plays one of the company's three co-heads, along with Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton. The movie opens in theaters this week. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Like a lot of people, I'm a longtime iPhone user and am, in fact, using one to record this very review. But I still have a lingering fondness for my very first smartphone, a BlackBerry, which I was given for work back in 2006. I loved its squat, round shape, its built-in keyboard and even its arthritis-inflaming scroll wheel. Of course, the BlackBerry is now no more. And the story of how it became the hottest personal handheld device on the market, only to get crushed by the iPhone, is told in smartly entertaining fashion in a new movie simply titled "BlackBerry." Briskly adapted from Jacquie McNish's book, "Losing The Signal The Untold Story Behind The Extraordinary Rise And Spectacular Fall Of BlackBerry," this is the latest of a few recent movies, including "Tetris" and "Air," that show us the origins of game changing new products. But unlike those earlier movies, "BlackBerry" is as much about failure as it is about success, which makes it perhaps the most interesting one of the bunch.
It begins in 1996, when Research in Motion is just a small, scrappy company hawking modems in Waterloo, Ontario. Jay Baruchel plays Mike Lazaridis, a mild-mannered tech whiz who's the brains of the operation. His partner is a headband-wearing, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"-loving goofball named Douglas Fregin, played by Matt Johnson, who also co-wrote and directed the movie. His script returns us to an era of VHS tapes and dial-up internet, when the mere idea of a phone that could handle emails, let alone games, music and other applications, was unimaginable. That's exactly the kind of product that Mike and Doug struggle to pitch to a potential investor in this scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACKBERRY")
JAY BARUCHEL: (As Mike Lazaridis) So basically, there is a free wireless internet signal all across North America, and nobody has figured out how to use it. There's free internet in this room right now. It's like the Force. Sorry. Have you seen "Star Wars"?
CHANG: (As Jim Balsillie) No.
BARUCHEL: (As Mike Lazaridis) So, OK, picture a pager, a cell phone and an email machine, all in one thing.
MATT JOHNSON: (As Douglas Fregin) We call it Pocket Link.
CHANG: The investor that Mike and Doug are courting is a sleazy piece of work named Jim Balsillie, played by a raging Glenn Howerton from "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia." Jim knows very little about tech, but senses that the Research in Motion guys might be onto something. And he joins their ragtag operation and tries to whip their slacker-ish (ph) employees into shape. And so after a crucial deal with Bell Atlantic, later to be known as Verizon, the BlackBerry is born. And it becomes such a hit, so addictive among users, that people start calling it the CrackBerry.
The time frame shifts to the early 2000s, with Research in Motion now based in a slick new office with a private jet at its disposal. But the mix of personalities is as volatile as ever. Sometimes they gel, but more often they clash. Mike, as sweetly played by Baruchel, is now co-CEO, and he's still the shy, yet stubborn, perfectionist, forever tinkering with new improvements to the BlackBerry and refusing to outsource the company's manufacturing operations to China. Jim, also co-CEO, is the Machiavellian dealmaker who pulls one outrageous stunt after another. Whether he's poaching top designers from places like Google or trying to buy a National Hockey League team and move it to Ontario. That leaves Doug on the outside looking in, trying to boost staff morale with "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" movie nights and maintain the geeky good vibes of the company he started years earlier.
As a director, Johnson captures all this in-house tension with an energetic handheld camera and a jagged editing style. He also makes heavy use of a pulsing synth score that's ideally suited to a tech industry continually in flux. The movie doesn't entirely sustain that tension or a sense of surprise to the finish. Even if you don't know exactly how it all went down in real life, it's not hard to see where things are headed. Jim's creative accounting lands the company in hot water right around the time Apple is prepping the 2007 launch of its much anticipated iPhone. That marks the beginning of the end, and it's fascinating to watch as "BlackBerry" goes into its downward spiral. It's a stinging reminder that success and failure often go together, hand in thumb-scrolling hand.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new film "BlackBerry." On Monday's show, we speak with actor Joel Edgerton. He stars in Paul Schrader's new movie "Master Gardener" as a horticulturalist with a secret past as a white nationalist. Edgerton launched his film career with a bit part in the "Star Wars" prequel "Attack Of The Clones." His brother is a stuntman who did stunts for Ewan McGregor's Obi-Wan Kenobi, and for Edgerton, too. I hope you can join us.
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