Flash of Genius lacks the pure, giddy optimism and panache of Tucker: The Man and His Dream and it doesn’t manage the engrossing intrigue of A Beautiful Mind, but it’s still hard to say “no” to this movie about a guy who takes a stand for what he believes in.
Hold That Tiger!
PG-13 for brief strong language
Back in the 1960s, Robert W. Kearns, a Detroit electrical engineering professor by day and inventor by night, had the brilliant idea that windshield wipers would be far more effective — and the driving experience a lot safer — if the wipers were automated. Tinkering away with a little motor and an aquarium in his basement, he finally got a working prototype in order. The next step: sell it to the big guys.
As it turns out, all the auto makers were scrambling to be the first one to make it to market with this “gimmick” and Ford was the first to take a gander at the “Kearns Blinking Eye Wiper.” Ford already had a more high-tech name picked out, the “intermittent wiper,” and they were all-too anxious to get under Kearns’ hood.
Purely in terms of themes and subject matter, much of Flash of Genius calls to mind Francis Ford Coppola’s zestful, colorful, exuberant Tucker, the bio-pic about Preston Tucker and his efforts to compete with the big Detroit automakers by building a better, safer car.
While both movies take great pains to recreate their respective periods in American history, Flash of Genius stays resolute in presenting a strictly down-to-earth portrayal of its protagonist. There’s no zippy Joe Jackson music to help move things along; there’s no fancy cinematography by Vittorio Storaro to spruce things up.
In the Blink of an Eye
What drives this movie — no pun intended, really — is Greg Kinnear’s thoroughly low-key, unglamorous performance as Robert Kearns. Kinnear is one of those easy to like actors, like Tom Hanks, and this time he absolutely disappears behind those thick-rimmed eyeglasses and receding hairline and immerses himself in his role.
That role is of a dedicated family man with six kids (perhaps enough to start his own auto factory, or at least the part that builds wipers) who loves his equally dedicated and understanding wife, Phyllis (Lauren Graham, The Pacifier).
Given their Detroit surroundings, the Kearns family’s idea of talking dirty and double entendres are expressions like “dip stick” and “have your chassis waxed.”
But, after the heady exuberance of making a business deal with Ford, things go south when Ford balks — after gaining access to Kearns’ technology — and backs out of the deal. From there, things unravel and relationships in the Kearns family become strained.
Refusing to simply allow Ford to walk off with his technology, Kearns takes them to task and winds up going a little nutty — the movie smartly sets up the situation by starting off with Kearns being escorted off a bus en route to Washington D.C. He tells the police the vice president had invited him to visit.
The American Dream
Was Kearns, who died in 2005 only weeks shy of his 78th birthday, a real basket case? Or was his apparent looniness a side effect of the insanity incurred by daring to stand ground against a major, multi-billion-dollar corporation? That story of a genius grappling with paranoia and nuttiness is what recalls A Beautiful Mind and, for that matter, the “cameo” made by Howard Hughes in Tucker.
Kearns spent 12 years in and out of court with Ford. They offered him $250,000 to settle. Then they raised it to $1 million.
Even after Ford bumped it up to a whopping $30 million to simply walk away, Kearns refused purely based on principal and to force the acknowledgement that Ford infringed on his patent.
That’s enough to break any man whose soul is not for sale.
Sure. Success is all about brains, talent, luck, and timing. But Flash of Genius also serves as a reminder to those who move from one of life’s battles to the next that the ultimate key to success is good old-fashioned persistence.