In “BlackBerry,” the Nerds Rise to the Top

Director Matt Johnson tells a story about the company’s rise and fall — and what it means to stay true to yourself in business and in life

May 26, 2023 7:00 am
blackberry film elevator scene
Jay Baruchel as Mike and Glenn Howerton as Jim in "BlackBerry"
IFC Films

Warning: this post contains spoilers from BlackBerry

Historically, films have been cruel to nerds. Nerds, and particularly nerdy men, are portrayed as hapless losers who are socially inept unless the task at hand is an in-depth conversation about sci-fi lore. From the disturbing visions seen in films like Revenge of the Nerds (1984) and Weird Science (1985), nerds have never been seen as more than a punchline. Even The Big Bang Theory, one of the most successful shows of the last decade, has way too much fun playing up every negative stereotype you can imagine when it comes to nerds.

But BlackBerry, the film about the meteoric rise and epic fall of the Canadian company Research In Motion (RIM), sees nerds in a very different light. The nerds in the film, written and directed by Matthew Johnson, are more nuanced than what we’ve seen before. It’s a film that finally — finally! — champions nerdom. 

Initially, BlackBerry certainly seems to be playing into these ugly tropes about nerds; they may be smart, but their social ineptitude has kept them from earning a valued place in society. They have the knowledge, undoubtedly, but what they have in intelligence, they lack in business acumen. But as BlackBerry comes to show, that nerdiness is exactly what causes the company’s rise to the top, proving that nerds can be legitimate heroes.

Things don’t start well. RIM founders Mike (Jay Baruchel) and Doug (Matt Johnson) pitch a groundbreaking mobile device, but Mike is barely able to look up from his cue cards, awkwardly standing while everyone else sits. He doesn’t make eye contact for more than a millisecond at a time.

It doesn’t get any better when Doug — wearing an orange headband and a Doom t-shirt — chimes in. He tries to explain the concept of what they’re pitching by referencing the force. You know, the telekinetic power from Star Wars (if you’re currently up in arms because the force isn’t technically telekinesis, then you’re gonna love this film). This draws the immediate ire of Jim (Glenn Howerton), who has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. Unable to interest Jim, the very man they’re trying to impress, the meeting ends without a deal.

Not a promising start for Mike and Doug, BlackBerry seems to be suggesting that these nerds have absolutely no idea what they’re doing — too shy to present themselves in a compelling way, and too interested in specifics of science fiction to make meaningful connections in the business world. But Jim can tell there’s something special brewing with these guys and finds himself compelled to work with them.

When we first see the Research In Motion offices, it feels more like a playground than a workplace. The workers are building models, reading GamePro magazine and messing around on internet forums. What seems like utter disarray is actually essential to what makes this group of people so successful. Their nerdiness isn’t only accepted, it’s fully embraced. Sure, the guys of RIM lack ruthlessness, but that’s rectified when Jim comes on board as co-CEO. But even when the ascent to the top begins and their small strip-mall office becomes an entire facility, the element of what makes their workforce so powerful — the nerdiness! — remains. The gaming sessions and movie nights are still intact, as is the gloriously geeky camaraderie amongst the staff. The walls are still adorned with their favorite movie posters, though now the posters are carefully framed instead of splattered in a collage on the wall.

Before that rise comes another test for Mike: a boardroom meeting with Jim in New York City. The build-up isn’t promising — Mike spills something on his shirt en route and forgets the prototype in the taxi. Surprisingly, all of Jim’s sales and business abilities prove utterly worthless in the meeting. He has no idea how to translate his grand promises into the technical know-how that the meeting requires. “Some nerds took you for a ride,” a man tells Jim.

But when Mike enters the room (late, because he lost the device), there’s a shift in the air. We’ve never seen him as anything but painfully shy; a sweet, affable pushover. But when he gets into the meeting, Mike is able to immediately reveal his genius. Thanks to his nerdiness, his technical knowledge is unparalleled, which allows him to sufficiently and accurately explain how his phone can change the marketplace forever. 

His passion finally translates to results because he’s unencumbered. Free of expectations, Mike can tap into his nerdiness, and blow everyone away — especially Jim, floored by his colleague’s ability. In the previous pitch, Mike failed because he was trying to be something he was not. This time, he’s his wonderful nerdy self, and entirely because of his talent, he manages to turn his company into one of the world’s biggest, practically overnight.

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But with unparalleled financial success comes an immeasurable challenge. When things get financially complicated, Jim starts making underhanded decisions to keep the company afloat, all without the knowledge of Mike. But the downfall of BlackBerry in Johnson’s film begins in earnest with the ringleader of the nerds, Mike, abandoning his principles, and his nerdiness alongside it.

Jim’s hiring of Charles (Michael Ironside) ushers in a significant cultural shift. Charles, the company’s new COO, puts an end to everything that makes the company tick — the geeky camaraderie, the model building, the movie nights. Doug, horrified by this shift, asks Mike: “Do you not ever wonder why these guys are willing to work 80 hours a week? Never see their families? Never get any credit?”

“It’s because they get to work on the best phone in the world, Doug,” Mike curtly responds. 

But Mike is wrong. It’s the full embrace of the staff’s nerdiness that sets them apart, allowing them to operate at the peak of their powers when the pressure is on. It’s something that Mike has always embraced wholeheartedly, but under the pressure of Charles and Jim, Mike is no longer the person, and the nerd, he once was.

It’s a significant moment and a major turning point in BlackBerry. The BlackBerry phone has taken over the world, and Mike, as co-CEO of the company, is rich beyond his wildest dreams. As we jump forward in time to 2007, Mike is hardly recognizable, having undergone a full makeover, no longer burdened by spectacles and with a new hairstyle fit for a supervillain.

A makeover typically signals a change for the good — a transition to excellence and of better things to come. It’s a common trope for nerds in cinema: once the protagonist sheds their spectacles, they all of a sudden become desirable and able to achieve their wildest dreams. The physical change is always positive because it marks a shift outside of nerdiness and into “normalcy.” But BlackBerry suggests the exact opposite: without everything that makes Mike who he is, he’s doomed to fail. Mike is a shadow of what he once was, rundown by the pressures of business. Affability has made way for cruelty, and his relationship with Doug — his best friend and the core of RIM — is all but over.

While Mike is practically unrecognizable, Doug is unwavering in his nerdom. That’s certainly true physically, as he’s never seen without a glorious headband and graphic tee. But that’s also true of his personality. Of all the fascinating people we see throughout BlackBerry, none are more genuine and earnest than Doug. What he lacks in social etiquette he more than makes up for with knowledge and passion and is always there to help keep Mike on track, preventing him from losing sight of what matters: making the world a better place through technological advancements.

Doug functions not only as Mike’s conscience — think Jiminy Cricket, but geekier — but also as a reminder of why nerds can be powerful, heroic people. The nerds in BlackBerry are goofballs that want nothing more than to play video games and watch movies, but they’re also incredibly talented, hardworking individuals uncompromising in their values. It’s no accident that the company completely loses its values and becomes a sinking ship when its leader not only ditches his own identity but takes away the identity of his employees. 

RIM goes through untoward chaos in the final act of BlackBerry, with their illegal financial maneuvering and the rise of Apple’s iPhone. There’s only one man who ends up on top when BlackBerry goes down, and that’s Doug, the nerdiest guy of them all. The film’s postscript all but confirms this, revealing that Doug is the only one with the foresight to see the dangers of stifling the nerds at RIM. Doug sold his shares at the peak of BlackBerry’s success, proving unmistakably that he’s always been the smartest one in the room.

There’s certainly no shame in that: he’s now one of the wealthiest people on Earth. In Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry, and in the real world, it’s the nerds who rule.

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