Flash of Genius could have been, and nearly is the right movie at the right time. It arrives in a world where most Americans seem to feel as if their country has been sold down the river by the machinations of corporate greed. The film tells the real life story of one man named Robert Kearns, an innovator and an inventor, fighting back against that very same corporate lust for bucks and power. If only his story had been told better.
Greg Kinnear stars as Kearns, the man who invented the intermittent windshield wiper only to have his design stolen by America’s big auto manufacturers, specifically the Ford Motor Company. Kearns’ idea, like so many great ideas, comes in a flash one afternoon while driving in the rain, dealing with the annoyance of wipers with only two speeds. He wonders why his wipers can’t work like the human eyes which blink, pause, and then blink again as needed. Before long he’s working in his garage, tearing apart wiper motors and soldering connections. His solution to the problem, like so many great inventions, is simple. A rearranging of existing electronic components, put together in a way no one had ever thought of before, and suddenly he has a working prototype.
Kearns is not however, some naïve idealist. When he and his friend decide to approach the car companies to sell them his idea, they do so carefully. He does it by the book, patenting his idea and ensuring that all the proper contracts are signed and in order before he lets anyone look at what he’s done. Unfortunately, when you have enough money and lawyers, things like patents are easily ignored. Ford is the first company to bite, and they lure him in with promises of his own manufacturing plant. It seems like a done deal, until several months into the process when Ford suddenly decides it’s not interested and calls the whole thing off. A few months later, they start putting intermittent windshield wipers on their cars, and claiming they invented them.
Ford refuses to admit the design was invented by Kearns, and with money and lawyers stacked against him, everyone advises Robert to give it up. To win a case against them it will take Robert decades and to fight them it will take more money than he has. Robert Kearns refuses to quit. He’s the little guy who’s not going to take it anymore, and the fight against Ford consumes his life.
It’s a good story, it’s just not told very well. Much of the time, Flash of Genius simply fails to connect the dots. For instance, we see Robert working hard at his case against Ford. It’s really nothing more obsessive than that, the man is just working hard. Suddenly, one day his wife, who up till then has seemed kind and supportive, walks up to him and says it’s over, because she just can’t take the stress anymore. It seems out of context, out of the blue. We never see any deterioration in their relationship, we never see Robert ignoring his family or neglecting his kids. He’s a nice guy who seems to care about his family. The movie never connects the dots between Robert fighting for his rights and the affect it has on his home. We’re simply told they are unhappy, left to assume that apparently, anyone who works hard at something must be screwing up their home life… because that’s usually the way it works in movies.
It’s a problem the entire movie suffers from. It’s as if Philip Railsback’s script does a good job of hitting all the bullet points of Robert Kearns’ life, but skips right over all the connections in between them. We needed someone to string it together into one, linear story. That never happens, and it’s a shame because Greg Kinnear delivers a fantastic, fascinating performance as Kearns and the film looks sharp visually. Flash of Genius could have been Tucker: The Man and His Dream, instead it’s an enjoyable, well intentioned, yet ultimately forgettable little piece of anti-corporate fluff.