BlackBerry: A True Story of The Rise and Fall of a Tech Giant

Matt Johnson’s ‘BlackBerry’ is a comedydrama film that recounts the impressive rise and fall of BlackBerry, a monumental linchpin in the world of smartphones. Set in Waterloo, Canada, during the late 90s and early 2000s, it follows tech genius Mike Lazaridis and his best friend, Doug Fregin, on their quest to invent a phone with a computer inside it. Soon ambitious businessman Jim Balsillie enters the scene, and together the trio launches their the world’s first smartphone, BlackBerry. However, as their company grows, a rift between the Co-CEOs, Jim and Mike, clashes with the changing market.

Now in the blink of an eye, BlackBerry’s success is jeopardized, and the company faces an uncertain future. ‘BlackBerry’ takes a unique workplace documentary drama-esque approach to the story of an industry giant. In doing so, it sets itself apart from similar films like ‘Tetris‘ and ‘Air.’ With a character-driven narrative, the film focuses on the treacherous speed at which empires are built and destroyed. Due to its connection to such an iconic relic from the recent past, you might be wondering about the story’s association with reality. Here’s everything we know about the same!

From Book to Screen: BlackBerry’s Journey

‘BlackBerry’ is based on a true story. Helmed by director and co-writer Matt Johnson, ‘BlackBerry’ is based on a well-researched 2015 novel, ‘Losing The Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry,’ co-written by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff. For their book, journalists McNish and Silcoff spoke to several of the real people involved in the original company to assemble a cohesive understanding of ‘BlackBerry’s’ real tale.

Jim Balsillie//Image Credit: CrackBerry Kevin/YouTube

The thing that attracted author McNish to ‘BlackBerry’ and its history was the almost underdog story that it presented. “What’s fascinating about BlackBerry is that its people that came together Jim and Mike, the founders. They had the audacity to think they can be better than Motorola Nokia and all the other players who were racing to provide the whole notion of data over networks,” McNish said in an interview.

Unlike McNish, indie filmmaker Matt Johnson wasn’t as familiar with the actual BlackBerry device until he started working on the film. Instead, Johnson’s primary draw to the story was the potential of the narrative. After producers approached Johnson and his co-writer Matthew Miller with the opportunity to make a film adaptation of McNish’s book, Johnson realized he wanted to tell the truth behind this story. However, Johnson still wanted it to be a fictionalized account of the real-life events.

In an interview with TIFF Originals, Johnson said, “We’re writing about them as though they’re characters that are separated from reality.” Therefore, when comparing the film’s events and characters to real life, it’s important to remember the separation the creators intended between the two. Mike Lazaridis’ actor Jay Baruchel repeats a similar sentiment when discussing his approach to Mike’s character in the film.

“So he [Matt Johnson] took Mike from the book and newspapers, and such and distilled it down to the pages of screenplay, which is already different from the real guy. And then I found a way to make that guy on the pages of the screenplay make sense to me and made sense for him narratively,” said Baruchel in the same TIFF interview. “So we talked very early on about how it’s important I don’t do an impression, and also all that mattered is emotion and truth. So we just tried to be honest and make sure that we weren’t being posers and that any kind of difference in accuracy takes a backseat to truth in the moment.”

Nevertheless, since ‘BlackBerry’ presents a biographical account of real-life events and people, it’s impossible not to point out the film’s occasional inaccuracy and disconnect from reality. For instance, former RIM employee Matthias Wandel reacted to the ‘Blackberry’ trailer, pointing out the film’s inaccuracies in a youtube video on his channel. Among general critiques like the characters’ lack of resemblance to their real-life counterparts and office culture, Wandel also critiqued Jim and Doug’s portrayal in the film.

According to Wandel, Doug’s character in ‘Blackberry’ was so far off from the real Doug Fregin that Wandel almost assumed him to be a fictional character at first. Later, director Johnson, who stars in ‘Blackberry’ as Doug, discussed his character and said, “Doug is true cipher. He has never done a taped interview.” Consequently, much of Doug’s character in the film was fictionalized and based on guesswork. Additionally, Johnson had a discussion with Wandel about his knowledge of RIM and took inspiration from him for Doug’s character.

Another infamous critique ‘BlackBerry’ garners is from Jim Balsillie. Although Balsillie likes the film and has seen it multiple times, he has also discussed the inaccurate portrayal of his character. “They’re taking an element of truth, who I am, and they’re playing with it,” Balsillie said in an interview. Wandel also shared a similar opinion in his YouTube video, claiming Balsillie was portrayed too harshly by the film.

‘BlackBerry’ also concludes Balsillie’s character arc by labeling him as someone who committed stock fraud. According to Balsillie, these claims are inaccurate, as are the ones about his obsession with hockey leading to the company’s downfall. “If you think growing a $20-billion company is designing illegal tax scams and raging f-bombs, there’s nothing I can do to help you,” Balsillie said. Nevertheless, Balsillie isn’t bothered by his comically cruel cinematic counterpart.

Lastly, ‘BlackBerry’ possesses several inaccuracies in its timeline and takes heavy creative liberties wherever necessary. Still, the film is based on extensive research. However, the creators preferred to prioritize a cohesive narrative and made choices about the same accordingly. Therefore, although ‘BlackBerry’ is most definitely based on a true story, viewers may find some of the story’s details different from reality.

Read More: Where Was BlackBerry Filmed?