A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, PG-13, 120 mins.

Robert: Greg Kinnear / Phyllis: Lauren Graham / Gil: Dermot Mulroney / Gregory: Alan Alda / Dennis: Jake Abel / Judge Franks: Bill Smitrovich

Directed by Marc Abraham / Written by Philip Railsback /  Based on the New Yorker article by John Seabrook

If you have never heard of Robert Kearns…then you are not alone.  His entirely overlooked invention is something that anyone of us on any given day utilizes.  

What began modestly as a simple creation for this university professor, inventor, husband, and father became a tortuous and emotionally crippling endurance test of fierce determination and blind – perhaps even stubborn – courage.  He patented it in 1967 and then fought a grueling legal battle over its ownership rights with one of the biggest companies in the United States.  He sued Ford Motor Company and Chrysler in 1982 for patent infringement and, in 1990, Ford lost its trial and awarded Kearns over $10 million in damages.  Chrysler followed suit with nearly $20 million in compensation.

All of this…for a tiny little unassuming gadget that is in 140 million vehicles in the United States today: the intermittent windshield wiper. This little gizmo, alas, nearly destroyed Kearns' sanity by the time it all-but-destroyed his marriage and his relationship with his children.

Question:  Was it worth it?

The new docudrama, FLASH OF GENIUS, answers unequivocally “You betcha!”  Based on an intriguing 1993 New Yorker magazine article of the same name by John Seabrook, the film is a long chronicle of Kearns enduring battles between 1953 and the late 1980’s when he concocted the idea for the intermittent wiper blade (it’s difficult to understand just how unique and difficult it was to create the item for its time), not to mention how a billion dollar corporation royally screwed him over by essentially stealing the prototype designs for it and released it to the public in new automobiles.  The ensuing litigation ate up precious years of Kearns’ life, which managed to make him socially isolated from all of those that loved him, but it also caused his mental health to severely deteriorate in the process.  It’s easy to label Kearns as a “nut job”, but in all fairness…he kind of was one.  He was so steadfast in his own convictions and obsessive willingness to take a Goliath-like business giant to justice that he turned down not one, not two, but three large settlements from Ford to stop his legal action and, in essence, to shut his yapper. 

Oh…those amounts were $250,000, $1 million, and $30 million respectively.

If FLASH OF GENIUS were not reality based, then it certainly would have been a very hard pill to swallow.  Yet, Kearns’ plight was real, as was his tireless quest to see Ford morally and financially pay for what amounts to something really simple: intellectual theft.  The genius of FLASH OF GENIUS is threefold:  Firstly, it’s a thoroughly compelling and unforgettably intimate portrait of downtrodden underdog that makes indescribable sacrifices in his life to get justice.  Second, it’s a damning and scathing attack on shady, manipulative, and seedy corporate business principles and practices that wisely points out that the reason big companies lie, cheat, and steal their way to success is because they simply can with very little initial opposition.  Finally, FLASH OF GENIUS takes a subject matter that, at first glance, seems beyond dry, mundane, and unapproachably disinteresting for a mainstream film and makes it fresh, compelling, and painstakingly absorbing.

The film is about the intermittent wiper blade, yes, but at its core the film is an intimate and challenging expose on an intensely driven and complicated individual.  The film has the trappings of those dubiously saccharine underdog tails of overcoming all odds to achieve victory in the end, to be sure.  Yet, first time director Marc Abraham (whose previous credits include producing films like AIR FORCE ONE and the brilliant CHILDREN OF MEN) shows amazing tact and precision by not allowing Kearns' tale to be a sermonizing morality play that engages in artless and naïve hero worship.  

Kearns, no doubt, was a hero in the sense that he went well above the call of personal duty to fight a decades-long legal battle to see that justice was served and served fairly.  On the other hand, Kearns is also portrayed as rash, socially alienating, verbally caustic, and nearly debilitating in his obstinate impulses.  Okay, he was also nuts for taking on Ford and other car manufactures all on his own, but his reputable motives, I think, completely outweighed his madness.  He may have been a figure that estranged his family and caused deep emotional ripples between himself and his wife and children that would never fully heal, but Kearns fought for honesty, integrity, and fairness in business.  Money meant little to him; all he simply wanted was Ford to admit publicly that they stole his patent.  Ford, who rightfully comes off as an enemy in the film, could have done just that, but their insatiable greed – and seemingly unstoppable financial resources – gave them the power to turn a blind eye to Kearns’ attacks for years.

Kearns – played in the film in a career high performance by Greg Kinnear, one of our most underrated dramatic actors – is primarily shown in the film as an enthusiastic thinker and dreamer in the film’s opening.  Like most inventors, he has a “flash of genius” and with him it occurred on his wedding night with his wife (a very decent Lauren Graham).  During it he accidentally popped a champagne cork into his eye, making him legally blind in it.  Afterwards, he began to think seriously about how and why people blink.  Furthermore, Kearns’ speculation on this would be tested even more during one raining afternoon in 1963 when he grew fed up that his wiper blades could not work like an eyelid, wiping up and down when needed. 

That was his flash of inspiration for their intermittent wiper blade.  Conventional wiper blades for the time “blinked” on or off, but what if they could swipe periodically?  After some trial and error, Kearns was able to figure out what a massive team of engineers at major automotive manufacturers were unable to do and – with the financial assistance of his friend Gil Previck (Dermont Mulroney, quite fine in a small role) – he unveiled the prototype of his invention to Ford.  Reluctantly, Ford did not buy into Kearns’ novel gadget, but the innovator was shocked and dismayed a few years later at a Ford car show that propped up their newest vehicles with, yup, intermittent wiper blades.  Kearns, rather rightfully, cried that the company willfully broke patent infringement laws and stole the invention from him, but Ford lashed back that Kearns was a crackpot.

Kearns did not sit back without a fight.  After making several attempts to contact Ford to no avail, he made efforts to sue the company for patent infringement.  His efforts were so taxing to both him and his family that it led to him losing his job as a college professor and further led to his wife and six children leaving him.  Even worse, Kearns had very few, if any, supporters or legal help.  At first, one attorney aided him, Gregory Lawson (in a tricky and memorable performance by the great Alan Alda, where he must play both the logical pragmatist and quiet antagonist to Kearns’ efforts) that tells the bitter inventor that settling is the only option.  He has a point:  Ford has unlimited cash resources and could stretch out the case indefinitely.  Kearns, forever fixated on getting what’s rightfully his, tells the attorney that all he wants is for Ford to tell him that they were wrong for what they did.

All of this culminates to FLASH OF GENIUS’ most transfixing section, the final third of it that details an aging Kearns successfully getting Ford into court, all by serving as his own counsel and whose only legal assistance is from his children.  What’s fascinating is the film’s approach here: It would be easy to portray Kearns as a bumbling and highly inexperienced presence in court at first and then transform him as a polished and articulate lawyer.  Instead, Kearns is shown as an intimidated, inexperienced, and colorless figure in the courtroom throughout the proceedings.  Even his closing arguments are not so much the work of a confident and assured man that gives one of those obligatory rousing and charismatic speeches as they are that of a man that is tired, concerned, and fed up.   He certainly lacked the poise, sophistication, a deep understanding of the law that Ford’s defense attorneys had, but his heart was in it just as much, and the consequences were more potentially damaging for him.

Yet, Kearns was not a goofy and unwitting fool in the courtroom, despite some of his awkward posturing and lack of courtroom etiquette.  One sly scene in the film shows him at his most calculating and resourceful.  He has a defense expert on engineering on the stand that has just systematically told the court that all Kearns did was take existing parts that he did not invent and splice them all together to make the intermittent wiper blade.  When Kearns cross-examines he holds up a paperback copy of A TALE OF TWO CITIES and shrewdly asks the witness whether Dickens invented all of the words in his book.  Of course not, but he did take already invented words and pulled them all together to create his own unique work. 

It’s subtle instances like this scene that help elevate FLASH OF GENIUS far above the moniker of a routine, patronizing, and sappy melodramatic TV-film-of-the-week fare.  The film is an exercise in carefully executed modulation on many fronts.  The screenplay, for starters, finds the right balance between being sentimental and not too syrupy with the underlining story, not to mention that it never props up Kearns as the pitch-perfect and faultless poster boy for all underdog heroes fighting insurmountable odds.  The film is resoundingly uplifting and inspirational because of Kearns’ struggles are joyously uplifting when we see his success after decades of setbacks, but it also very cleverly makes the point to never ask for our instant appreciation of the man.  Kearns is a persona that should be respected on the level of his crusade against obvious injustice, but he was a deeply imperfect man whose life was unalterably blemished by his zeal for justice.  When he succumbed to cancer in 2005 he certainly died a millionaire from his legal wars, but no amount of money would ever seal the wounds his wife and children lived with during his struggles against Ford. 

And then there is Greg Kinnear, who does such a quiet, below the radar, and unassuming job of inhabiting this profoundly determined, but profoundly troubled man in an Oscar-nomination worthy performance.  FLASH OF GENIUS is largely evocative because of the way Kinnear is able to so perfectly capture both Kearns’ staunch, almost militant focus to seeing fairness and justice win the day while showcasing the late inventor’s ever-crumbling psyche and sagging emotional fragility.  Kinnear is one of the finest actors out there are at underscoring his character’s humility and sense of inner vulnerabilities without overselling the emotions for cheap effect (his final courtroom speech could have reached nauseating PATCH ADAMS territory).  His work in FLASH OF GENIUS wonderfully compliments the tonal approach to the material:  Not too flashy, not too preachy, and not stretching to incredulous, eye rolling levels to garner audience empathy.  Instead, Kinnear’s performance - and the film – is touching and thoughtful and it never tries too hard to gain our easy buy in, not does it necessarily ask us to like Kearns.  If anything, the film is enthralling and very convincing at highlighting a grave injustice in the legal history of automotive development and shows a lone and distressed man’s lifelong pursuit of honor and justice first and financial restitution second.  

The intermittent wiper blades are almost just a cursory element here; the real reward of FLASH OF GENIUS is the mesmerizing and surprisingly moving journey it takes you on.

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