Flash Of Genius

Flash Of Genius


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

The cinema has always drawn its inspiration from mighty moments in world history; wars, revolutions, political scandals – and, of course, the invention of the intermittent windscreen wiper.

Not perhaps the most riveting subject matter, you might think, but there is a cracking story behind the development of a device we all take for granted. And if director Marc Abraham doesn’t tell the tale all that well, you’ll still leave the cinema impressed in equal measure by the creative talent of Robert Kearns – and his absolute refusal to give up fighting for what he believed was right.

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Kearns (Greg Kinnear) is an engineering lecturer living in Detroit in the boom years of the late Fifties and early Sixties, when the car was one of aspiring Americans’ key status symbols and the automotive giants fed an insatiable appetite, their influence permeating throughout the city. He has a good job, a loving wife and family and lots of friends in the industries that help keep the behemoths’ production lines running and their products one step ahead of the competitors.

One day, driving back from church in a rainstorm, he starts to think how inefficient it is that, once activated, his ‘windshield’ wipers swept back and forth with no variation of speed and no time delay; you either have them on or off. What if a wiper could be designed that had an ‘intermittent’ option?

A classic ‘why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?’ moment, but he has the technical know-how to turn speculation into reality. With the help of his kids and a series of Heath Robinson-esque contraptions in his basement he builds a prototype and he and his friend Gil Previck (Dermot Mulroney), head of an auto parts supply company, take it to Ford.

The big boys are impressed by the invention, but less so by Kearns’ insistence that he manufacture the product himself. Nevertheless, he buys some factory space, convinced he has finally found a true goal in life – and is then told by Gil that Ford aren’t interested any more.

Disappointed but not distraught, he goes back to his day job – and a year later, while sitting in a rainswept diner he sees (in one of the film’s few truly striking images) a sleek black Ford Mustang cruising past, wipers working – you guessed it – intermittently.

Outraged, he demands that the company recognise his contribution (financial compensation is, and remains, a secondary issue) – but he soon realises that US patent law is hideously complicated and nobody in Detroit wants to take on a car giant.

Undeterred, he devotes himself to forcing them to admit they stole his idea. It ruins his life, driving a wedge between him and his initially supportive wife Phyllis (Lauren Graham) and resulting in mental illness – the film opens with Kearns sitting on a bus to Washington, having deluded himself that the government are willing to listen.

He returns to his family, but remains listless and unfocused – until a crusading lawyer (Alan Alda) offers to take on his case and a change in patent law makes the prospect of pursuing a civil action, having his day in court against Ford’s legal machine, a reality...

A great chance, then to make a powerful, passionate film asking some wide-ranging questions about the nature of creativity and inspiration - the title is taken from a US Supreme Court ruling that a true invention must include some uniquely original idea and not simply be a matter of superior craftsmanship – as well as a look at the consumer culture of post-war America where the ideals of innovation and ‘making lives better’ collided with the harsh realities of capitalism and industrial mass production.

In the hands of a director like Francis Coppola (whose underrated 1988 classic Tucker; The Man And His Dream explored a similar story) perhaps something like that would have emerged. Instead Abraham gives us a conventional ‘triumph of the underdog’ tale, desperately lacking in urgency or visual flair.

He’s a veteran producer making his directorial debut and it shows. The cast are top-drawer, the crew all have impressive CVs; it’s good-looking, classy and earnest without being terribly exciting. You certainly get the sense that Kearns’ fight for justice took a LONG time, but the details of his family life are disappointingly sketchy and some plot strands (his wife contracting psioriasis through the stress of living with six kids and a good but exasperating man) are simply left hanging.

You end up desperate for the film to cut to the chase and let Kearns make his barnstorming speech to the court. And Kinnear doesn’t disappoint. A prince of the supporting role (even in Little Miss Sunshine he was somewhat eclipsed by Steve Carell) and often cast as louche charmers (as in last year’s Ghost Town) he takes an old-style Hollywood lead role, of the kind that Jack Lemmon or James Stewart would have played 50 or 60 years ago, and makes it his own.

Radiating optimistic idealism in the opening scenes, achieving William H Macy levels of hangdogery as his crusade seems doomed to failure and pursuing a dogged insistence that Ford do the right thing and acknowledge his contribution even as they dangle ever juicier financial carrots for him to shut up and go away, he’s one of the film’s undoubted triumphs and yes, you will be rooting for him in the end.

Not a bad film by any means, but you get the feeling that an amazing (and true) story deserved better. See it for Kinnear’s career-best performance and a few effective scenes and pithy lines. But be aware you’re buying an assembly line product rather than something custom-built. The film’s title is a hostage to fortune; flashes of genius are what it sadly lacks.

Reviewed on: 13 Mar 2009
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Flash Of Genius packshot
A part-time inventor devotes his life to suing the Ford Motor Company for stealing his idea.
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Director: Marc Abraham

Writer: Philip Railsback, John Seabrook

Starring: Greg Kinnear, Alan Alda, Laura Graham, Dermot Mulroney

Year: 2008

Runtime: 119 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


Glasgow 2009

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