A film review by Craig J. Koban
FLASH OF GENIUS
2008, PG-13, 120 mins.
2008, PG-13, 120 mins.
Dennis: Jake Abel /
Judge Franks: Bill Smitrovich
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.
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
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
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
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.
– 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.