Movie Review: "Flash of Genius" (Opens October 3, 2008)

There’s an old expression that states, “It’s not the money, it’s the principle of the thing.” Robert Kearns fought for that ideal for more than three decades of his life.

“Flash of Genius” – presumably an expression inventors use to explain the moment of genesis of an idea – is the true story of Detroit engineer and inventor Bob Kearns. On his wedding night, he had an unfortunate accident. He was removing the cork from a bottle of celebratory champagne. The cork flew up and hit him in his left eye. The resultant scene was bloody but somehow prophetic – Bob Kearns came out of that incident legally blind in one eye.

His marriage survived and the man went on to father six children. Meanwhile, Kearns was keenly sensitive to the workings of the human eye. Kearns observed the pattern of the blink and he had a fascinating revelation. Kearns postulated that our brains introduce a discontinuous pattern whenever the eyes blink – quickening and slowing as necessary.

While driving in the Michigan rain, he observed that the windshield wipers on vehicles of that era only had two positions: ON and OFF. Quite often, the wipers ran too swiftly for light rainfalls, and too slowly for downpours.

Their marriage was affected deeply by his tinkering and the aftermath of the invention process. It was a single-minded effort that eventually took over Kearns’ entire life. At one point, it brought him to the edge of madness. Kearns swept aside his involvement with his loving wife, Phyllis, and his six young children as he became more and more obsessed with designing and marketing a windshield wiper that paused during its sweeping motion, as the eye pauses during blinking. By rearranging the already-existing mechanical and electrical circuitry, Kearns invented and patented the “Blinking Eye” windshield wiper. His goal was to manufacture these wipers and sell them to the automotive companies.

At the time, the behemoth Ford Motor Company engineers had already begun their own investigations into concocting an intermittent wiper system. Kearns was invited to show off his invention and given a Ford car on which to install it. Initially, the game plan appeared to be that a Kearns family business would indeed be born and Kearns would realize his dream.

That, however, was not to be. This movie documents what followed when the Ford Motor Company suddenly quashed its deal with Kearns, and surreptitiously began installing its own version of the intermittent wiper. What follows is the courageous but truly demented tale of how Kearns’ was left with a single life purpose -- to get the Ford Motor Company to acknowledge they stole his idea – his greatest work. It may only have been a windshield wiper system to others, but to him, it was a work of art on par with the “Mona Lisa.”

First-time director and former producer Marc Abraham read the original story by John Seabrook in the New Yorker magazine and decided to make it into a movie. A script by Phillip Railsback followed. Eventually, actor Greg Kinnear received a copy with the unlikely working title of “Window Washer Man.” Kinnear quipped on TV last week that the property sat on his desk for months while he avoided reading it, thinking it would involve some kind of a caped superhero with a squeegee!

I thought the movie was profound but some moviegoers might also find it quite grim. Anyone who has had dealings with large corporations knows the scope of their unyielding grasp – you just have to look at modern companies and trace their history. Some have met their demise because of poor decisions. However, I don’t believe it is “bad karma” that finds the large automakers in difficult straits these days.

My impression is that Greg Kinnear has never had a better part and I honestly hope he will be noticed for it. He has already won the Best Actor Award at Boston's Film Festival. Actress Lauren Graham plays Kearns’ long-suffering wife Phyllis, and Dermot Mulroney (with a mane of dark hair over his forehead) is fine as a duplicitous and self-serving partner named Gil Privick. Alan Alda has a small but significant role as Kearns’ lawyer Gregory Lawson. The various young actors who play Kearns’ children at different ages were quite natural and believable.

Hamilton, Ontario, Canada stands in for Detroit, Michigan in this film. Visiting family members from the Detroit area told me there is a lot of recent film activity in Michigan. Unfortunately, this movie was apparently not part of a trend that is said to be bringing films back to US locations. As a reviewer, I support that completely.

I give this movie a “B+” on Ellen’s Entertainment Report Card.

Universal Pictures Official Website:
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.
Runtime: USA:119 min
Country: USA
Language: English

A quick aside: Somehow, I have a special soft spot for inventors. My father was a lawyer, but he was always tinkering with something or other. I don’t remember all of the things he invented, but he was quite a guy – variously a playwright, painter, sculptor and very amateur violinist! Dad actually holds a patent on a coin-operated microscope machine**, which provided a tiny income for him in his advanced years. The gadget was placed at a couple of locations in Miami, Florida, where they lived and where I grew up. Regrettably, my mother and father never shared details of their finances with me although I was their only child. Furthermore, finances were not something in which Dad showed much interest or ability. He ended up spending most of their cash in the waning days of his life. I don’t know the details but my mother was practically destitute and still trying to work as a legal secretary when she died at age 71 in March 1991.

**Google found the patent for me:

Patent number: 4405202
(Granted to Leonard L. Kimball)
Filing date: Mar 30, 1981
Issue date: Sep 20, 1983

Abstract: A protective microscope container for housing a microscope having a pair of focus control extension knobs extending therefrom and a pair of two dimensional slide holder control arms extending from the rear of the container. Two dimensional control members are used to drive a continuous slide...