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‘BlackBerry’ shows us the perils of having a good idea

Jay Baruchel as “Mike Lazaridis” and Glenn Howerton as “Jim Balsillie” in Matt Johnson’s "BlackBerry".
Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
Jay Baruchel as “Mike Lazaridis” and Glenn Howerton as “Jim Balsillie” in Matt Johnson’s "BlackBerry".

There’s a moment in the 2001 documentary Startup.com when one of the founders of the company we’re following is being pushed out by his cofounders, who don’t feel that he has what it takes to move the company forward. He says something along the lines of, “There’s kind of a sadness when your ideas grow beyond what you can do for them.”

I thought about this while watching BlackBerry, which presents a fictionalized version of the rise and fall of the company that produced that once-ubiquitous smartphone, and the people who pushed it to the highest heights, but who didn’t have the vision for where to go once their ideas grew beyond them. Research In Motion was the Canadian company that created the BlackBerry, and we see as its founders try to pitch their idea for a phone that could also send email, and how incredibly bad they are at selling themselves until they hire an aggressive businessman as co-CEO. The company then exploded, of course, as the phones were in hands all over the world, and Research in Motion grew from around a dozen employees to many thousands. And then came the iPhone, and the people behind BlackBerry couldn’t quite conceive of this new brave new world. Oh, and there might have been some securities fraud.

BlackBerry is incredibly entertaining, shot in a quasi-cinéma verité style, and it’s very conscious of the social and cultural markers that defined the late ‘90s and the decade or so that followed. The cast is magnificent, capturing the specific quirks of the engineers who would make this kind of thing, and Glenn Howerton is particularly great as that hard-charging businessman hired to run the company—he’s a barely contained ball of rage that’s always on the edge of bursting, whether he’s trying to move a million BlackBerrys or watching a Maple Leafs hockey game. Maybe especially when he’s watching hockey.

It's all thoroughly absorbing, but peeling back a layer, we can understand that sadness, too, as we see the men struggle to adapt in a world of innovation and capitalism that never, ever stops. They really did change the world. And then the world moved on.

BlackBerry is in theaters May 12th

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.