By Andy Hunsaker, Fancast Movies
Flash of Genius is the kind of movie you watch while wondering in the back of your mind how it ever got through the studio greenlight process, because it doesn’t have the kind of bombastic pizazz you expect from the Hollywood machine. Sure, it’s a true story about a righteous little guy taking on a corporate monolith, but it’s hardly a feel-good story at all. It’s one of the most depressing movies with a happy ending I’ve ever seen, and it centers around windshield wipers. Yet it manages to be completely real and compelling nonetheless.
Greg Kinnear stars as Robert Kearns, a 1960s college professor and a part-time inventor who comes up with the concept of an intermittent windshield wiper and actually manages to figure out how to make the device work. Naturally, he starts to shop it around to automakers with the help of his friend Gil Previck (Dermot Mulroney), and the Ford Motor Company shows a keen interest, as they’d been trying and failing to develop it. Excitedly, Kearns manages to swing a deal with Ford’s Macklin Tyler (Mitch Pileggi) wherein he’d be able to start his own manufacturing business to churn out the wipers, and he eagerly sets to work. That is, until Ford suddenly decides to kill the deal after they’ve gotten the chance to see his invention up close, and of course, the intermittent wiper starts showing up on their cars in short order, spurring an indignant Kearns to crusade against the outright theft of his invention for years to come, at a personally devastating cost.
Every legal thriller you see at some point or another will have one lawyer threaten another with ‘going blind on paperwork’ or ‘burying you with motions’ or what-have-you. Director Marc Abraham now takes the time to show us the true nature of this threat in a quietly subdued, unassumingly foreboding manner, and makes us truly understand why none of the flashy movie lawyers ever try to take this route. Most movies make it seem like doing the right thing is not that hard a choice, and you’ll come out on top feeling like a champion. For Kearns, to persevere in the pursuit of truth and justice against the power of one of the country’s largest corporations required that this campaign become an obsession, to the point where he doesn’t seem to be able to relate to his family anymore. This becomes especially clear when hotshot lawyer Gregory Lawson (Alan Alda) manages to negotiate a tremendous settlement, and Kearns turns it down because it doesn’t include any recognition of his invention. This helps his sympathetic but long-suffering wife Phyllis (Lauren Graham) against him, which tears their large family apart. Eventually, all Kearns has is his fight, and when he finally sees it through, we’re left to wonder if the human toll was worth it.
Kinnear is a gifted actor with an incredible ability to engender a deep sympathy for Kearns, even in the depths of his single-minded focus that drives his loved ones away and nearly breaks him. The entire film rides on him, and he carries the weight of it ably. The crushing sadness of the end of the film and the realization that a life of happiness has escaped him due to the pursuit of justice is mitigated somewhat by the fact that his children eventually seem to come around to champion their father’s quest as well, essentially serving as legal assistants when he tries to represent himself in court. Of course, the fact that he eventually won his vindication on behalf of all wronged inventors everywhere (and you can bet there are many) also helps, but we come to more fully understand how much power corporations can wield over the lives of an everyman, and how the legal system isn’t so much about justice as it is about settlements.
Alda, speaking on what brought him to the role, said he had a personal experience with a lawyer not unlike Kearns’ experience with his character. “It’s very surprising if you are looking to right a wrong and you find out the only way it can be righted is through a settlement. If you accept the settlement, it looks like all you wanted was the money and you weren’t out for justice, and if you don’t accept it, you may spend the rest of your life fighting.”
Bob Kearns spent his life fighting. It’s not a price most of us would be willing to pay, and it’s a tragedy that doing the right thing so often costs this dearly.