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'BlackBerry' pockets rave reviews as tech leaders say phone story doesn't ring true

TORONTO — “BlackBerry” director Matt Johnson is enjoying the controversy simmering around his latest film.
Matthew Johnson, left to right, Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton pose for a photo as they promote the film "Blackberry" in Toronto on Friday, April 21, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — “BlackBerry” director Matt Johnson is enjoying the controversy simmering around his latest film.

Over the past month, some of the most influential people in Canada’s technology and business circles settled into sneak preview screenings of his darkly comedic spin on the rise and fall of the beloved Waterloo, Ont.-created smartphone.

And many emerged deeply confounded by what they saw.

After one Toronto viewing a week ago, a group of former employees at BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion gathered over drinks to discuss a mixture of Canadian pride and confusion they were feeling about the film's revisionist history of the company.

As "BlackBerry" heads to theatres nationwide this weekend, amid heaps of buzz and critical raves, the film faces its share of sour notes from those unhappy with how freely — some say even carelessly — it plays with the truth.

Earlier this week, RIM’s former chief financial officer Dennis Kavelman published an opinion piece in the National Post calling the film an “obvious, lazy portrayal of tech bro culture” that “seems to go out of its way to diminish and tarnish the legacy of the founders and employees of one of Canada’s great technology stories.”

And a recent 18-minute YouTube video by former RIM employee Matthias Wandel – who also served as one of the production's consultants – ripped apart the accuracy of the movie trailer without having seen the film itself.

“Look, the fact that a Canadian movie is even getting this kind of attention is a miracle,” the director said last month during a run of press interviews.

“(That) there would be some comment on accuracy in portrayal or whatever, to me, is a compliment.”

Understanding Johnson's "BlackBerry" requires knowing a bit about his work with co-writer Matt Miller. Together, they're a pair of cinematic pranksters who crashed NASA disguised as a documentary crew for their 2016 film "Operation Avalanche" and blended fictional characters with real scenarios in their TV comedy "Nirvanna the Band the Show."

"BlackBerry" is very loosely based on “Losing the Signal,” a 2015 book by reporters Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff. The film effectively takes their facts and feeds them through a paper shredder before reassembling the jagged remnants of familiarity.

Johnson's movie is less interested in the finer details of a Canadian business story than he is in following a group of underdogs whose great idea changed the world and then vanished almost as quickly as they were blinded by success.

Former co-CEO Jim Balsillie is played by "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" actor Glenn Howerton as a nefarious troublemaker. His business partner Mike Lazaridis is portrayed by Ottawa-born Jay Baruchel as a socially inept visionary.

Johnson rounds out the trio of leads as RIM co-founder Doug Fregin, a composite of various RIM employees and elements of fiction.

The actors had not met Balsillie and Lazaridis before or during the film's production.

Both Howerton and Baruchel are receiving praise from audiences and befuddlement from those who knew the real co-CEOs and say they missed the mark by a mile.

Johnson sums up the negative feedback from former RIM staff as what you might hear from people with an idealized sense of self, unwilling to see their actions as the rest of the world does.

“Everybody’s John Wick in their head,” added a mildly agitated Baruchel, tipping to the invincible action hero.

Some of the film's pre-release attention surrounded Howerton's portrayal of Balsillie as a firebrand leader with equally ambitious and volatile tendencies. He took the role with the mindset of playing “a man who always thought he was the smartest guy in every room.”

“In order to be someone like Jim, with the amount of drive that he has, you have to be trying to fill some sort of a hole of neglect,” Howerton said.

“I don’t know if that actually exists for Jim," he added.

Even though he is the target of the film's greatest misinformation — at one point directly suggesting he's a criminal — the real-life Balsillie has been surprisingly eager to play along.

He called Howerton's portrayal a "roast" in a recent interview with The Canadian Press, a sentiment he's echoed at select appearances tied to the film's release. But he's also pointed to finer details he wished the filmmakers got right, including the design of his office.

Johnson, who candidly acknowledges the film would've probably benefited more from an agitated Balsillie in the press, takes the businessman's diplomatic stance as a sign he's secretly stung over how he appears in the movie.

“Jim, we really got you, my friend — I know it hurts, but that’s you," he said, addressing an absent Balsillie.

"It may not be the you that you lived day-to-day but it is the character of you sucked from history and put in a painting."

More surprises could be in store with the BlackBerry story following the theatrical release. An extended three-part episodic version of the film will air on CBC later this year.

In the meantime, Johnson is looking at various markers to determine whether "BlackBerry" is a success. One of them he might not even hear about.

"It’ll be if the next time Jim sees somebody in the street for real," he said.

"(And they say,) 'Hey, Jim Balsillie, I saw a movie about you.'"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 12, 2023.

David Friend, The Canadian Press