Written by: Zach Subar, Special to CC2K
It would be easy to pin Flash of Genius as your garden-variety courtroom drama, complete with settlement offers and big shot lawyers.
But when you sit down in the theater, it’s more like you’re taking a seat on the couch of the Kearns family of Detroit, which fought the Ford Motor Company for 12+ years over who actually invented the intermittent windshield wiper that allows us to actually see in our cars when it rains today.
Adjustable speeds for windshield wipers? That was unheard of in the 1940s, when they only had one, standard speed, and the squeaking noise they made was enough to make you want to stop driving altogether. Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear), driving home from church one rainy day with his family, asks his wife: “Can’t anyone in the whole city of Detroit make a windshield wiper that works?”
Armed with encouraging words from his wife Phyllis (Lauren Graham) and his six children (who seem irrationally supportive of their father, especially at their young age, when you might expect them to be more stubborn about helping him with every single thing he asks for), one thing leads to another, and soon Kearns is standing in front of Ford executives with his business partner, Gil Previck (Dermot Mulroney), showing his idea off to the amazed crowd of five or so, who claims that he has “cracked” the grand wiper problem. “You’re the winner of the wiper sweepstakes,” the head Ford executive (Mitch Pileggi) tells Kearns, and soon the college professor turned inventor is closing on deals for a space in which to manufacture his groundbreaking product, and with Motorola to supply parts for the product.
There’s one problem, though—Ford doesn’t want in. The movie quickly jumps forward three months, when Previck breaks the news to Kearns that Ford has backed out of the deal. Distraught, Kearns is unsure of what he should make of this news flash until he spots Ford cars on the street that are sporting the very wiper that he felt he had created. He follows the cars to a party Ford is holding to introduce the “intermittent wiper,” which the company now claims to have created itself. Cue the “common man versus large, diabolical corporation” story, and you have the plot of the legal battle that this movie eventually becomes.
It takes a while for the film to get there, though. It jumps around a lot, after one scene telling us that it is now two years later, and seemingly ten minutes later turning the clock forward for four. Much of that time is devoted to chronicles of Kearns’ momentary descent into bitter anger towards Ford and, eventually, insanity (the case drives him to inexplicably leave his family in favor of a Greyhound bus to Washington, D.C., where he has convinced himself that the president is waiting to hear about his ideas).
Predictably, Kearns returns home, sees a psychologist and hires a lawyer, deciding that he will now fight Ford “the right way.” But when his lawyer (Alan Alda) joyously tells him, after yet another jump in time (which come too frequently and break up the otherwise pleasant flow of the movie a bit too much), that Ford has offered to settle for $250,000, Kearns turns it down, saying that nothing is more important to him than Ford admitting that they stole his product—something that they certainly would not have done under the terms of the settlement. The rash decision causes his lawyers to leave him and his family to completely lose trust in the case.
It is when Kearns must go it alone, and when Kinnear must portray a man who is singularly focused on obtaining justice for himself, that the movie really gets good. At that point, it’s fairly impossible for any rational person to believe that Kearns really should continue to fight Ford and not accept the terms of the settlement, and it’s that disbelief that makes you want to see how deep a hole he’ll dig himself.
Kinnear clearly delved into his character’s true-life plight before the movie was shot, and you can see the stress building on his face as he works through inane documents that could give him a better chance against the evil corporation. You also see the painfully rational face of a family that is unbelievably loyal, but cannot bear to see its patriarch destroy himself over what, two-thirds throughout the movie, seems like nothing more than a trivial matter. It really, truly feels as if you are right there with them throughout the entire ordeal.
Extended camera shots of the characters on both sides of the case—used to great effect—also help you feel just that much closer to them. You’re genuinely nervous for Kearns by the movie’s end, since you’ve lived with him for twelve years of his life, and you want him so, so badly to make the wrong decisions and, above all, to prevail because of his choices. Many, probably, will root for him to the point of tears.
So if you never thought you’d care about patent law, you’d find yourself rethinking that after sitting through the film. It’s a slight exercise in masochism, since you’ll be feeling someone else’s pain to a great extent for about two hours, but trust me, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a little bit of that every now and then. Especially in this case.