2023 Milwaukee Film Festival: Day Seven “BLACKBERRY”

The Members only screening at the Milwaukee Film Festival is always one of the highlights of the festival. Frequently, the best film that will play at the festival will find its way to the secret screening. This year’s screening was the anticipated BLACKBERRY by director Matt Johnson (THE DIRTIES).

BLACKBERRY, in the tradition of something like THE SOCIAL NETWORK, dramatizes the spectacular rise of the first smartphone from BLACKBERRY. And unlike some other films, the spectacular collapse of the same. Like its predecessors, while the engineering may be important, its the personalities behind the scenes that take the spotlight.

BLACKBERRY decides that the story behind the rise and fall is the fulcrum between engineer Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) who is totally at home with the science and totally inept at the business end of things and Jim Balsillie (Glen Howerton) who is the businessman that they need to stop getting rolled over by established corporations, even if Balsillie is willing to overlook little things like securities laws to make things happen. In the beginning, it is a marriage that works with both partners making up for the others weaknesses. But as success comes obligations to maintain the stock price, stave off the competition, and keep true to their ideals. Not to mention distractions such as Balsillie’s dream of owning an NHL team.

Matt Johnson directs, co-wrote the screenplay, and acts in the film and what emerges is a fully realized vision. It definitely feels like it was made by Canadians including a view of the landmarks that isn’t just Toronto or Vancouver, the aforementioned hockey subplot, and a self deprecating sense of humor. “I thought you told me that these were the best engineers in the world.” “No, I told you these were the best engineers in Canada.” The film is filled with little details that make the world of the film seem specific and filled in. That detail goes into explaining why the Blackberry was ahead of the curve. And why the iPhone and Android are such data hogs. That’s the kind of technical detail you won’t find in THE SOCIAL NETWORK. The film is on the edge between being a black comedy and a straight drama and Johnson’s command of tone and story doesn’t let him down.

Baruchel and Howerton are particularly good in the film. Baruchel’s borderline OCD genius with a mane of silver hair always has the audience’s sympathy with his idealistic determination to have the highest of standards and absolute refusal to compromise on the technical end make him a quiet pillar of the film. He’s a great counterpoint to Glen Howerton’s bull in a china shop businessman. Howerton is a bundle of take no prisoners energy coupled with a barely concealed aggressive approach and ambitions. Howerton alternatively gets to play hero and villain as it’s clear that the rise of Blackberry would have never occurred without him. And he almost sees what’s coming in time. Howerton has been on IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA for a long time, but this may prove to be his calling card for a long career on the big screen.

BLACKBERRY is going to be starting its theatrical run in mid-May and it’s definitely worth putting on your radar. It’s a spin on the tech rise story that we haven’t seen with this clarity of understanding at least since THE SOCIAL NETWORK and features two strong lead performances.

The 2023 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from April 20, 2023 until May 4, 2023. Tickets can be purchased via MKEFILM.ORG.