This year’s model of the David and Goliath Hollywood melodrama is a lemon. Flash of Genius has been marketed as the inspirational true story of a little guy who stood up to big auto makers when they ripped him off. But such a small percentage of what the movie depicts is true — or, for that matter, compellingly presented — that audiences are likely to leave theaters feeling similarly conned.
Greg Kinnear plays Dr. Robert Kearns, an electrical engineer, Detroit university instructor, father of six and weekend tinkerer. Lauren Graham costars as Phyllis, his schoolteacher wife. Early in the film, Kearns recounts an incident from his wedding night. According to Philip Railsback’s screenplay, the groom was struck in the left eye by an incautiously popped champagne cork and thus prompted to wonder why windshield wipers couldn’t be designed to move at stop-and-go intervals like the human eyelid, rather than merely swishing back and forth. “When I regained my sight,” Kinnear says, “the first thing I saw was Phyllis.”
Besides making one wonder what the rest of that honeymoon must have been like, the scene raises doubts about Railsback’s research and his faithfulness to the 1993 New Yorker piece by John Seabrook from which his script was adapted. For one thing, Kearns didn’t regain his sight. He was blinded. For another, the inventor himself debunked the story in a 1993 interview with the Detroit News, calling it “baloney.”
What is factually accurate is that Kearns did develop and patent the first intermittent windshield wiper in the late 1960s. He took a prototype to Ford brass and was greeted as a conquering hero. On the basis of an understanding he reached in meetings with the company’s reps, Kearns leased factory space and borrowed money to start a business to manufacture the devices for sale to automobile makers. And then his phone calls stopped getting returned. The next thing he knew, Ford cars were hitting the streets with his devices already in them.
First-time director Marc Abraham clearly had something along the lines of Erin Brockovich or A Civil Action in mind when he took on the telling of his hero’s epic 13-year legal battle. For several reasons, Flash of Genius fails to deliver the satisfactions of those films, however. It doesn’t help that, even sweetened by the script and played by an actor as automatically likable as Kinnear, Kearns comes off as a dull compulsive, indifferent to the collateral damage his obsession inflicts on those around him. Neither does it help that nearly everything that happens from this point in the film is hooey.
The movie’s creators suggest that Kearns acted as his own lawyer. In fact, he burned through no fewer than five firms and addressed the court himself only after firing his attorneys a week before the damages phase of a case that came to court some time after the one chronicled in this picture. Even less faithful to the facts is the film’s portrait of the inventor’s relationship with his family. The movie shows us a driven man surrounded by supportive children cheerfully doing paralegal duty. In reality, Kearns’ bullying, often volatile behavior caused his kids to distance themselves from him physically. “We all got to the point where it was him or us,” his son Tim recalled in that 1993 interview, “and you always choose yourself.”
While Abraham does include the historical detail that Kearns’ tunnel vision also eventually drove away his wife, he paints a falsely rosy picture of their relationship in the final years of his fight. In the movie, Graham and Kinnear act like lovers who’ve had a spat. In real life, Phyllis had him jailed after he refused to make alimony payments or obey a court order to vacate their house. Not exactly the stuff of feel-good filmmaking.
And that, at heart, is the problem with Abraham’s picture. He’s tried to twist the story of Robert Kearns into something it isn’t. While it ends on a seemingly triumphant note, with Ford forced to pay the inventor $10 million, the movie glosses over the fact that the ruling actually represented a demoralizing defeat. Kearns had already turned down far larger settlement offers, because what he was really after was the right to mass-produce the wipers himself. The court never concluded that Ford infringed on his patents deliberately. Nor did it take any action to stop the company — or any of the other 25 Kearns sued — from continuing to produce the devices. “He wanted to be a manufacturer and supply that system to the automotive industry,” Richard L. Aitken (one of Kearns’ many attorneys) told The Washington Post in 2005. “That was the most important thing to him.”
Of course, the movie has other problems, too. The role is ill-suited to Kinnear’s talents. Abraham’s pacing is glacial, the cinematography is flat, the score by Jill Savitt would be more appropriate for a supermarket, and then there’s the fact that the climax can be seen coming a mile away. Maybe the biggest flaw, though, is its failure to play fair with the audience. Ford’s painted as the bad guy here because it played fast and loose with the facts for financial gain. Well, here’s a flash for you: Universal Pictures is a pretty big company, too. Why is it any less objectionable when it does the same?