In 'BlackBerry,' Jay Baruchel and Matt Johnson Celebrate "Canadian Small-Man Complex"
"If [BlackBerry was invented] in most other countries, it would have been adopted into a sort of national myth"
Published Apr 26, 2023It's remarkable how little credit BlackBerry (and Canada) get for having a major hand in the world we currently live in today.
Even those of us who used to be staunch BlackBerry users might have forgotten how important its clickity keyboard and trackpad (or "trackball," if you're old enough to remember) are to our present-day culture. Luckily, BlackBerry is here to remind us.
"They are not just another tech company," BlackBerry star Jay Baruchel tells Exclaim! over the phone from Montreal. "They changed the way the world interacts with one another. And if it happened in any other place, these guys would be household names."
Directed by Canadian filmmaker Matt Johnson, BlackBerry tracks the rise and fall of one of Canada's most important exports beginning in Waterloo, ON, in 1996. Following Mike Lazaridis (Baruchel), a wunderkind of sorts, and his best friend Doug Fregin (Johnson), audiences watch as they struggle to find investors in their company, Research in Motion (RIM). While the primary service RIM provides initially is making modems, Lazaridis and Fregin have a bigger offering: a cellphone that has the capabilities of a computer, internet included.
Unfortunately for the duo, Fregin lacks the maturity and Lazaridis lacks the charisma required for the corporate world. Thanks to some fortuitous timing, Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), a Harvard MBA grad and die-hard hockey fan, joins RIM and turns them from a chill hole-in-the-wall company with movie nights into one of the biggest drivers of the late-'90s tech boom.
We all know how the story ends: BlackBerry is upended by the iPhone and becomes a punchline, but its impact, even if rarely appreciated, is everlasting.
"It's one of the reasons I liked the idea for the film," Johnson says from his office in Toronto via Zoom. "I was always kind of a bit despondent over the idea that, while we [in Canada] actually did do something world-changing and culture-changing by inventing the smartphone, nobody knew that it was a Canadian product or really gave the product its due in terms of its piece of the puzzle. I was just fascinated by that."
He continues, "I wanted to give these guys the credit that I thought they deserved, while at the same time showing what happened to them. These guys were flawed and heroic in all the same ways that a lot of these types of lionized tech heroes are in movies, and nobody knew who they were. So I thought, 'This is perfect for me.' It's going to be a way for me to indulge my Canadian [identity], while at the same time telling something that has some international relevance."
It may be easy for us up north to blame the dominance of America for BlackBerry's lack of recognition, but there's undoubtedly a bit of Canadian humility that contributes. "If [BlackBerry was invented] in most other countries, it would have been adopted into a sort of national myth," Baruchel contends. "And for a bunch of annoying reasons — and some good, enviable ones — we don't do that shit."
One person who would seemingly prefer to change that is Jim Balsillie. Balsillie is shown throughout the film as aggressively pro-Canada and anti-American, exemplified perfectly in his insistence that Carl Yankowski (the then-CEO of Palm, Inc., played by a brilliant Cary Elwes) come to Waterloo for a meeting. His desire to be taken seriously as a businessman is paralleled by his desire to have Canada treated with the same respect as the US.
When I ask Baruchel whether he can relate to Balsillie given his own experiences in Hollywood, his infectious (and at this point, trademark) laugh echoes through the phone: "Every day. A lot of my life has been informed by what could be viewed from one POV as crippling Canadian small-man complex," he says — jokingly, but not.
"That's why I like Jim Balsillie and the way [we show him] in our film," Baruchel continues. "This is not a hero of mine, but one reason why I will always have what could only be described as respect for him is, I can't help but root for a guy whose career and identity was informed in large part by his love of Canada and his ire at being condescended to by the big boys down south. Something I identify with in a very real way."
BlackBerry does a tremendous job of acknowledging Lazaridis, Balsillie and RIM for their contributions to technology, Canadian history and changing the world's social fabric (for better and for worse). As a country, we are sometimes burdened with an imposing modesty resulting in an underestimation of our nation's output to the world.
I was guilty of this in my own line of questioning to Baruchel and Johnson when I asked them what they thought Canada's greatest contribution to cinema was. To my mind, the answer was simply comedy, but leave it to two of this country's best filmmakers to make me check my demure perspective at the door.
"In forming the NFB [National Film Board], the early, early days of documentary and the work that was happening here in the '60s and '70s was pretty groundbreaking. There was work done in Canada in both documentary and animation that really moved the needle — a lot of Allan King stuff," Johnson says. "Nowadays, I think that if you were really trying to see what is the biggest contribution to the Canadian voice in cinema? I don't think anybody has been more relevant than David Cronenberg. I think he's the closest we've got to a true auteur."
Baruchel contends, "Our contributions have been holistic and eternal and had been there the entire time." He goes to to list off Toronto's Mary Pickford as the world's first movie star, Quebec's Douglas Shearer as a pioneer of film sound design, and Quebec's Mack Sennett's discovery of Charlie Chaplin.
"There's never been a time where we weren't doing shit down there for them," says Baruchel. "From birthing the genre of the documentary to just creating the very language and the elements that make up [the] fundamental DNA of what a movie is. We've been there the whole time. Also, Cronenberg."