FLASH OF GENIUS
RUNNING TIME 119 minutes
WRITTEN BY Philip Railsback
DIRECTED BY Marc Abraham
STARRING Greg Kinnear, Lauren Graham, Alan Alda, Dermot Mulroney
Equally sincere but without much entertainment value, Flash of Genius is another of those movies about honest, ordinary citizens fighting the powerful system of corporate corruption. This time little David is Dr. Robert Kearns, a professor of mechanical engineering in Detroit who invented the “intermittent” windshield wiper. The corporate Goliaths who stole and marketed his invention, cheated him out of his patents and falsely claimed the credit for his ideas were the Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler Corporation. Kearns spent 12 years relentlessly pursuing these ruthless tyrants for using their money, technology and power to screw him out of his rightful profits while simultaneously installing his invention in their new cars without seeing him or taking his phone calls, and the decades of disappointments, insults to his integrity, setbacks and litigation (chronicled in a lengthy New Yorker article that provided the basis for Philip Railsback’s screenplay) make for interesting viewing up to a point. But too much technical information about circuit boards, Motorola transistors and U.S. patent laws eventually takes up more screen time than Kearns’ sympathetic story, leaving the viewer restless and bored.
Worse still, it’s a movie that needs a big, charismatic star who can hold attention in the center ring for two hours, and Greg Kinnear does not exactly spell box office allure. It’s a good time for a story that attacks American big-business institutions, but corporate wrongdoing plays second fiddle to the obsession of the man himself. Kearns devotes so much effort into protecting his reputation, to the point of utter paranoia—turning down every offer for out-of-court settlements, risking his family’s future, destroying his marriage and ending up in a mental institution—that you begin to lose patience. By the time he turns into a broken man, jobless, estranged from the people who loved him and living on government assistance, he’s no longer much of a hero. Salvation arrives briefly in the form of a gutsy lawyer (Alan Alda) fearless enough to drag every automotive corporation through the halls of justice. But even after Ford returns Kearns’ five patents and offers to pay him a fat figure that could send his six children to college, the attorney is defeated by his own client, who arrogantly refuses to bargain unless Ford publicly admits stealing his invention in print. When Kearns turns down the money, even his wife loses faith in the case, and Kearns loses his lawyer and his family. Following another decade of stress, research and commitment, the man finally gets his day in court, acting as his own attorney, with his six kids as his legal assistants. He triumphs, but the huge emotional price is obvious in his exhaustion. He died in 2007, before this film was completed.
Quirky and likable, Mr. Kinnear gets his best role since sex-addicted murder victim Bob Crane in the disturbing Auto Focus, and plays it like Jimmy Stewart in a Frank Capra vehicle. He is ably supported by Alda as the lawyer, Dermot Mulroney as the business partner who turns coward, and Lauren Graham as the long-suffering wife. Mark Abraham’s earnest direction does a commendable job of compiling tons of legal documents into a chronological narrative that is easy to follow, replete with the obligatory courtroom duel saved for the big finale. Having said all that, why does this movie fail to involve? It’s got good actors, period ambience and the right elements. But it remains a wan subject unlikely to interest a wide audience; it’s a well-made movie nobody will ever see. I will say this, though. Not since The Insider locked horns with the tobacco industry has a mainstream movie savaged unscrupulous corporate chicanery with such vengeance or named names so frequently. As one wag observed last month in Toronto, when the film had its world premiere, “Ford, in this movie, is anything but a product placement.” And I loved the query in Variety, questioning why, even after years of fighting the company, did Kearns still drive a Ford?