“Blackberry” is much more than fact-based story of meteoric Canadian startup

Friendship, loyalty and the price of achieving dreams at core of compelling, entertaining tale

Where: In theatres
What: Movie, 119 mins.
When: Now
Genre: Drama
Rating: NNNNN (out of 5)
Why you should watch: A rapid-paced examination of how dreams, hopes and realty can collide in the creation of a startup. Tells the tale of much more than just the beginnings of BlackBerry.

THE QUIETLY AMAZING new Matt Johnson-powered film, BlackBerry, is so much more than just a semi-factual account of the rise and fall of Canadian communications disruptor BlackBerry. It captures the essence of a startup and how innovative dreamers and non-natural entrepreneurs respond when faced with business realities they never dreamed of.

Writing, directing and starring in the film, Johnson leads an impressive, mostly Canadian cast. He himself plays BlackBerry co-founder Doug Fregin and is supported by Jay Baruchel as Mike Lazaridis, Glenn Howerton as Jim Balsillie, Mark Critch as Gary Bettman and more.

Baruchel is transformed into the soft-hearted and gentle BlackBerry visionary, who has great ideas about building phones and taking advantage of internet capacity but is painfully naïve in business, especially when encountering ruthless sharks.

Lazaridis and Fregin have hatched the BlackBerry idea in a classic Silicon Valley-wannabe office —in Waterloo, ON — with geeky dudes in shorts and Hawaiian shirts playing games, watching movies and revolutionizing the way information is transmitted and received along the way.

The very sight of all of this unfocused merriment enrages old-school business beast Balsillie when he comes by the office for a look. He terrifies most of the staff, especially Fregin and Lazaridis, but Lazaridis is prepared to believe the abrasive, “real” business guy is just what they need.

Howerton is riveting as the Type A Balsillie, compelling and disturbing all at once — for the Blackberry co-founders and employees as well as the audience.

He appears to be from another planet, a different species from the sweet nerds who populate the BlackBerry world. The film also becomes a story of loyalty as BlackBerry originals look to Lazaridis to protect them from Balsillie. When he doesn’t, hopes are smashed and the company, for a while, becomes fucking huge.

A fun and intriguing side story follows Balsillie’s failed attempts to acquire an NHL team. The brash entrepreneur manages to alienate even the sharks running the NHL who, unlike the BlackBerry staff, have the power to not let him into their club, denying him his franchise. Critch is great and greasy as the NHL chief.

In addition to solid writing and skilled directing, Johnson is excellent as the wide-eyed and idealistic Fregin, communicating plenty with a distraught gaze or disappointed, unbelieving look.

There are plenty of Canadian “cookies” in the film, which opens with a highway sign pointing to Waterloo and background radio noise revealing Matt Sundin becoming celebrated by a play-by-play announcer.

Johnson and his team have created a fantastic film that tells so much more than the story of an unlikely Canadian mega-success and its ultimate downfall. It’s a story of friendship and loyalty and the sharp edges dreamers can bump up against chasing their passion — and the compromises they will explore to make them a reality.