Flash of Genius
After I watched Flash of Genius, I was interested enough in its subject matter to seek out the article upon which it’s based, “The Flash of Genius” by John Seabrook, which ran in the New Yorker in 1993. (The whole thing is here, for those interested.)
The article and the movie each detail the life of Bob Kearns, an engineering professor who in 1962 invented the intermittent windshield wiper, which unlike the wipers of the times could wipe at various intervals, like a blinking eyelid. He patented the invention, but Ford, and later Chrysler, stole it. Kearns sued, and a David vs. Goliath story was born.
The New Yorker article presents Kearns more or less favorably. But it also points out that his quest for justice and recognition had turned obsessive, that he had roped all his children into working full-time for him, and that he planned to keep suing various companies for pretty much the rest of his life (he died in 2005 at seventy-seven years old). It also includes arguments for the other side — that Ford had men working on similar devices at the same time, that naming Kearns the sole “inventor” of the intermittent wiper robs those men of their own recognition, that the often Byzantine U.S. patent system can easily be exploited by independent inventors.
The movie ignores these shades of gray: Kearns is the good guy, Ford is the evil corporation. It’s a feel-good story of one man against the machine, and on those terms it works well, thanks almost entirely to Greg Kinnear’s performance as Kearns.
Kinnear is perfect for this type of role. The man oozes quiet sincerity from his bones. He’s always been an unpretentious actor, and in Flash of Genius he lends that likable persona to a simple, slightly awkward family man who adamantly believes in justice.
The film opens with Kearns at his lowest point: after suffering a mental breakdown, he’s picked up at a bus station by two police officers: “Mr. Kearns, could you come with us? Your family’s worried about you.” The movie then jumps back to the past three years, which didn’t bode well: if the whole movie would be spent leading up to this point, it would be a drag.
Luckily, the story catches up to that bus ride only about halfway through, and we’re thus not subjected to two full hours of an ordinary guy getting royally screwed over. Kearns instead rebounds, and the second hour chronicles his serious attempt to sue Ford and actually bring the case to trial — against a company that has enough time and money to keep delaying the trial, for years. But Kearns won’t give up.
He temporarily hires a lawyer named Gregory Lawson (Alan Alda, who only gets two big scenes but is incomparable
in both of them). After much work, Lawson’s thrilled to report that Ford has offered Kearns a hundred-thousand dollar settlement. Lawson thinks he can get even more, but Kearns refuses any settlement that doesn’t acknowledge him as the inventor. This leads to an argument that’s one of the best scenes in the movie. Kearns says he won’t stop for anything less than justice.
“This settlement is justice,” Lawson responds (and I’m paraphrasing). “This is how justice is dispensed in this country. You get enough money to stop worrying, to make everything a little more pleasant for you and your family. You don’t throw that away.”
Kearns did throw that away, which is lucky for the movie because it means it can climax with the actual trial. The courtroom scenes are well done; as in real life, Kearns ends up representing himself, but actually does a capable job (and scores one terrific monologue involving A Tale of Two Cities).
These scenes do, however, reveal that the movie hasn’t bothered to explain the fundamentals of the case to us. It turns out Ford’s entire legal argument, for example, was that Kearns’s original patents were invalid, which we’re not even aware of until the closing arguments take place.
No doubt this was done to avoid making the movie too dry and boring. But ironically, it does very close to the opposite: it turns what could’ve been an in-depth look at an interesting issue and a fascinating man into a pedestrian story of one man against the odds. That doesn’t mean it’s bad — Kinnear and Alda make this movie worth seeing — but it does mean it falls far short of greatness.
Movie Grade: B-
Based on the true story of college professor and part-time inventor Robert Kearns’ long battle with the U.S. automobile industry, a tale of one man whose fight to receive recognition for his ingenuity would come at a heavy price. But this determined engineer refused to be silenced, and he took on the corporate titans in a battle that nobody thought he could win.
The Kearns were a typical 1960s Detroit family, trying to live their version of the American Dream. Local university professor Bob married teacher Phyllis and, by their mid-thirties, had six kids who brought them a hectic but satisfying Midwestern existence. When Bob invents a device that would eventually be used by every car in the world, the Kearns think they have struck gold. But their aspirations are dashed after the auto giants who embraced Bob’s creation unceremoniously shunned the man who invented it.
Ignored, threatened and then buried in years of litigation, Bob is haunted by what was done to his family and their future. He becomes a man obsessed with justice and the conviction that his life’s work — or for that matter, anyone’s work —
be acknowledged by those who stood to benefit. And while paying the toll for refusing to compromise his dignity, this everyday David will try the unthinkable: to bring Goliath to his knees.