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


“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.

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After one Toronto screening 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,” Johnson 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.

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 employees and elements of fiction.

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

Both performances are receiving praise from audiences and befuddlement from the people who knew the duo, which Johnson sums up as 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.

Most of the 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 portraying “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 added.

“I don’t know if that actually exists for Jim.”

Despite being 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.

“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 plot and character surprises could be in store 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, (they say,) ‘Hey, Jim Balsillie, I saw a movie about you.'”

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

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