Flash of Genius
directed by Marc Abraham
written by Philip Railsback
based on an article by John Seabrook
starring Greg Kinnear, Lauren Graham, Dermot Mulroney, Alan Alda, Duane Murray, Mitch Pileggi, Tim Kelleher,
In the guise of a familiar story about a pip squeak who challenges Mr. Universe to a wrestling match, there are here elements of another story that plays with ideas regarding the nature of patience and stubbornness.
This is a true story based on the life of Robert Kearns (Kinnear) , a college professor from Michigan who in the mid-fifties through the early sixties discovered through a series of interesting coincidences the trick to make the intermittent windshield wiper work. All the major auto companies had tried and failed and Robert took his idea to Ford who backed out of their deal after a few months. Then, eighteen months later Robert discovered they’d ripped him off and were installing his wipers in some of their new cars. Needless to say the little guy here starts flappin’ his wings and getting mighty mighty, ya’ll. The film cuts a swathe through the twelve years it takes Kearns to have his case heard and in that time he suffers many pains that would most likely have weakened a lesser man’s resolve. But Bob is possessed and can literally see nothing else before him but his big day in court. Meanwhile his wife Phyllis (Graham) can’t take it and absconds with the six kids. There is nothing left but a grubby apartment and boxes and files relating to every patent case Bob can get his hands on.
The film does seem to slow down to the same deliberate pace that is being depicted in the film. This is mostly during Bob’s study period leading up to the trial. There isn’t a whole lot going on in these scenes save Bob tearing into another file folder in search of some elusive document that might help him make his case.
Bob Kearns is a character of exceptional motivation and determination. He’s rather unexceptional otherwise and it’s difficult to keep the energy of the film going when it’s attempting to expand on the basic Bob model. The family gets short shrift and we never learn much of anything about any one of him. The wife is essentially a cipher who mostly exists in the film because...well...Bob had himself a wife. The kids grow up so that other actors play them and so it’s impossible to get too attached to any of them and soon the film is over so it doesn’t much matter anyway. No this is Bob’s film and it lives and dies by our ability to latch onto something about him that makes sense. Mostly this occurs when Bob is first working on the windshield wiper and when he’s in court. In between, Bob doesn’t do much of anything compelling. The film feels about as stimulating as watching a middle aged man sitting in a dark and dank apartment all day looking at papers. Still, Greg Kinnear is one guy I would certainly enjoy watching perform these tasks so therefore the film keeps my interest long after it should have petered out.
It’s difficult to imagine what it’s like to come up against something seemingly as impenetrable as the Ford Motor Company but that’s what Bob Kearns did and that’s why this film was made. It’s even more difficult to fathom how a man could spend twelve years fighting that same corporation over a patent. This anti-corporation film manages to sling a bit more mud on the faces of executives who seem to get richer the worse the economy gets. But we all know Ford will just absorb the losses and it won’t effect them at all. Still, the point of this is to allow the audience to root for a character they can readily identify with and to fantasize in the hopes of experiencing the proper outcome when it occurs.
This is very much a story about second chances and giving the kids something to prove that you are not quite the asshole they make you out to be. In this film Bob sticks through to the end and demonstrates to his children that he is a man of his word who does what he says he’s going to do. There is a moment near the end when Bob is surrounded by his children and it gives one a moment of pause. Bob is willing to risk losing everything he has just for the sake of proving a point. He puts it all on the line because he can’t stomach the thought of being taken advantage of by a corrupt thief with no sense of shame. As the film progresses, Bob does not appear to care much about the time he is spending on putting everything together in the hope that one day the patent courts will open up and he’ll be able to make his claim. He gets so stitched in to the idea of the thing that he is unable to really grasp what is happening around him.
The moment of inspiration, where everything turns suddenly sharp focus, and that singular idea appears out of nowhere is celebrated in this film as a rare circumstance that comes to the very few. According to the film Bob was opening a bottle of champagne on his wedding night and the corked popped off directly into his eye. From that point on he says he thought routinely in terms of his eye. During one such rumination after articulating his frustration over the present wiper blades he wondered why a windshield wiper couldn’t be more like the blinking of an eye. Such is the trigger that leads to him using his fish tank to mimic rain conditions and his new-fangled contraption designed entirely in his garage. Bob is presented as a man who has been inventing innovations for much of his life. Prior to his big hit he had been unsuccessful to fully actualize his vision but he found a way with the wiper blades and it proved to smash him across the mouth and beat him down with a tire iron.
All along Bob is tempted with money by a representative of the Ford Motor Company named Charlie DeFao (Kelleher). DeFao keeps appearing with more from the treasure chest but Bob doesn’t bite because there is no admittance that Ford did anything wrong. What is strange is that he never got the admittance and took home less bank than he would have received had he took one of their final offers. So, it’s not at all clear what he gained by dragging the thing out in court for years other than the satisfaction of personally confronting them and showcasing their behavior for everyone to see. Still, they didn’t admit to outright theft so he didn’t exactly get what he came for after twelve grueling years in the trenches searching for the right ammunition to use against them. Then again, a man’s pride is a sticky and strange thing. Bob considered the Ford Motor company and all the others that came after to be an infringement on his life.
The performances in this film keep the story in motion through to the conclusion. Greg Kinnear demonstrates his character’s grit and resolve through how he presents his character’s myriad tics and other physical characteristics. Kinnear keeps the mopey postures to a minimum and captures a character who is truly pushed to the brink by the impossibilities inherent in his unique situation. Lauren Graham plays the dutiful wife who gets pissed off and eventually leaves. She’s not really present in this film and remains on the sidelines throughout. Alan Alda is brilliant as the lawyer who takes Bob’s case until becoming frustrated with Bob’s lack of cooperation. Dermot Mulroney is solid as the friend/business partner who can’t quite understand the bee in Bob’s bonnet.
Overall, this film doesn’t altogether do what it sets out to do. The end doesn’t do justice to everything that has built up before and ultimately it’s something of a letdown. The characters are all well written but they don’t necessarily serve the story as clearly and effectively as they might. Still, there is the battle between the just and unjust in this film and that carries the film part of the way it needs to go. Bob’s not all that interesting of a guy so all we are left with is watching how Kinnear’s body bends in certain scenes and what he does with his eyes. Indeed, it’s difficult to gage a character who doesn’t do anything particularly compelling from the first scene straight through to the end. It’s not really a film about movement or mannerisms and instead can be read as a film about principles and getting what one deserves even if it takes a dozen years to come to fruition. This is the story of an almost bizarre obsession with getting things right. The real Bob Kearns wanted to set up a factory and do everything with his kids as his “corporation.” Was he naive? Was he shortsighted? Perhaps he really was that ambitious and had no concept of limitations.