Friday, October 10, 2008

Flash of Genius (***)

Directed by Marc Abraham


I don't really know how much significance the intermittent windshield wiper has had on our lives, but both the film Flash of Genius, and the film's subject Dr. Robert Kearns, feel that it has had tremendous impact. This particular windshield wiper has a pause in it that allows them to work more like eyelids, wiping the window according to the severity of the rain. So yeah, in the end, I think we can conclude that Kearns' invention isn't as profound as this movie suggest, but that's not the power of the story. What's fascinating about Flash of Genius is the David and Goliath tale, as one man decides he will not allow his work be taken from him.

Kearns (Greg Kinnear) is first a respected engineering professor, who lives happily with his wife Phyllis (Lauren Graham), and their six kids. Driving home from church, he begins to get annoyed by the constant dragging of the wiper on his windshield, and wonders why a window-wiper can't work more eyelids: wiping away only when excessively needed. It becomes an obsession of his, and with the help of his loyal children, he builds the first patent in his basement, using scraps.

His friend Gil Privick (Dermot Mulroney) is an automotives manufacturer, and tells Bob that he can introduce the patent to those who work at Ford. Ford, among other car companies, has been trying diligently, yet unsuccessfully, to create their own, so Bob's invention is something of great value. Bob enters the world of automotives, he shakes hands with important men, but his hubris grows strong when he demands that he manufactures all of the wipers himself. This cannot be done, Ford says, and instead of negotiating, they decide to walk out on the deal--with Bob's patent. In little time, new Ford cars are shown with intermittent wipers, and Bob gets no recognition for his invention.

What transpires after this is a fourteen-year battle for Kearns to prove his part in inventing the wiper. In all that time, his obsessive concentration on bringing the truth to light alienates his wife, kids, and Privick. Among other things, he suffers a colossal nervous breakdown, which sidelines his battle for close to a year. He hires a lawyer (Alan Alda), but is frustrated when the only thing he can get him is a settlement where they don't admit that they stole his patent. Kearns stubborness reaches its peak, when Ford offers him $30 million to settle, but he still chooses to fight them, so he can be acknowledged as the inventor.

All of this seems frustrating, and it is. In a way, that's what makes this film so intriguing. It does not show Kearns as a mesianic victim, but a pigheaded man who doesn't know when or how to pick his battles. After fourteen years, he loses his wife, his home, but still is headstrong enough to keep trucking along. I don't think I'd have the guspah to turn down $30 million flat for a windshield wiper, but there is something imbalanced in Kearns to make him do so. The film makes a point that, through it all, his kids for the most part kept on the side of their father in his long charge, and they are essentially the only ones.

The movie becomes very generic in parts, but it never insults the audience. In the tough times that we live in, a film like this becomes magnified. At its basest, the film is about the little guy being royally screwed by the major corporation, and I think most people can identify with that these days. It smacks of Capra-esque sentamentality, and we never really doubt what the end result will be (a film like this simply CAN NOT allow the little guy to lose in the end). What's captivating is the journey, the sacrifice, and the hardship Kearns takes in the name of what is right and wrong.

The source of the film's power comes from the wonderful performance from Greg Kinnear. Kinnear, the perfect Hollywood "everyman" fits into this role with ease, and showcases just enough emotion to make him sympathetic, but just enough instability for us to question his tactics. There are pieces of the classic James Stewart performances in this one, because it is so sincere. Notice Kinnear's face when he finally hears the jury read the verdict he'd been waiting fourteen years to hear, and the simplicity in which he displays such a flurry of emotion while barely flinching.

Films like this depend so much on its lead performance, and Kinnear is geared up for the job. Personally, I was rooting for Kearns all the way through, but that is how the film is supposed to make you feel. It would be nice if we could still consider films like this fables, products borne from the American mind which loves to see David slay Goliath. Truth is, all across the country there are many smart, creative people whose ideas are assassinated and then stolen by companies like Ford. Like Alda's character states in the film, justice in this nation is dished out "with a checkbook". It's a real shame.

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