Flash of Genius: Marc Abraham’s Tale of Professor-Inventor Robert Kearns, Starring Greg Kinnear

The true story of university professor and part-time inventor Robert Kearns (played by Greg Kinnear) could have been much more dramatically compelling than the version that we get in “Flash of Genius,” helmed by vet producer but neophyte director Marc Abraham.

World-premiering at the Telluride Film Fest and then playing successfully at the Toronto Film Fest, “Flash of Genius” will be released by Universal in October.

Chronicling a decades-long battle with the U.S. automobile industry, “Flash of Genius” is the tale of a man whose fight to receive recognition for his ingenuity came at a heavy price. The committed, obsessive engineer Kearns simply refused to be silenced, determined to take on the corporate titans in a fight that nobody thought he could win.

It’s too bad that the heroic saga is structured as the fight of the “little man” against the big machine, as yet another variation of the cherished American myth of David Vs. Goliath. What sava the film from sentimentality and predictability are the socio-technological context, the lead performance by Gregg Kinnear, and the secondary characters, which bring some edge and notes of darkness to the story.

This is a banner year for Kinnear, who after years of playing supporting roles in studio and indie movies (“As Good As It Gets,” for which he was Oscar nominated, “Little Miss Sunshine”) appears in starring or co-starring roles in two films this season: David Koepp’s terrific supernatural screwball comedy “Ghost Town” (See Review) and in this picture, showing in both facets of talent not tapped before.

The phrase “flash of genius” refers to a 1941 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which states that, in order for a creation to qualify as an invention, the inventor “must reveal the flash of creative genius, not merely the skill of the calling that inspired said product.” Problem is, how does one define such a vague concept as “invention,” a controversial process that has been an ongoing conundrum, with ambiguous results at best. In the early days of the court’s decision, a person’s invention was more protected and considered sacrosanct, but as the power and influence of big corporations (national, multi-national, global) grew, the nature of that protection shifted to favor capitalist advancement.

Bob Kearn was not alone in his combat, and the film is effective in grounding his particular story in a broader history and sociology of science context. Throughout history, brilliant inventors have lacked the resources to protect their patents, from Antonio Meucci and his telephone, to Jacob Davis’s blue jeans, to Nikola Tesla’s radio, to Hans Lippershey’s telescope, all were men abused by bigger, more aggressive scientists who patented their discoveries, such as Alexander Graham Bell, Levi Strauss, Guglielmo Marconi, and Galilei.
As noted, historical context and scientific details are crucial and fascinating (At Columbia’s Graduate School, I took several elective classes in the sociology of science, and many theoretical concepts became clear and tangible while watching the film, hence my favorable response despite the film’s many shortcomings as a biopic and drama.

Back in the 1960s, the Kearns were a typical Detroit family, trying to live their version of the American Dream. Bob, a local college professor, is married to a peer, schoolteacher Phyllis (Lauren Graham). Reaching their thirties, the couple had six kids, raising them in a typical Midwestern mode.

Things change, when inveterate tinkerer Bob invents the intermittent windshield wiper, a device that would eventually be used by every car in the world. Proud and thrilled, he convinces (or deludes) himself that he has struck sheer gold.

As is known, the late 1950s and 1960s were the golden era of the American car industry, and Detroit was at the booming heart of it. Working as an engineering professor at Wayne State University in the Motor City in the late 1960s, Bob Kearns was a tenacious inventor in his basement workshop. Having damaged his eye in an accident with an errant champagne cork on his wedding, he was fascinated and inspired by the adaptability of the body. He grew curious to know if a windshield wiper could be designed to work just like a blinking eye, drawing across the car’s glass with intermittent timing, contingent upon the driver’s needs in inclement weather, from a smattering of raindrops to a more consistent downpour.

To be sure, Bob was not alone, and the filmmakers should be credited for not embracing the mythic clich?© of the solitary mad-genius. Collaborating with his family friend Gil Previck (Dermont Mulroney), the duo develops and then markets their revolutionary product. However, their aspirations are shattered after the automotive giants, who embraced Bob’s device, take his creation and shun him and the genius man behind it. Ignored, threatened and then involved in years of litigation, Bob is haunted by what was done to his family and their potentially bright future.

To help him fight the seemingly impossible battle, he turns to attorneys, including Gregory Lawson (a splendid Alan Alda). But their approach and willingness to settle leaves Bob with the realization he alone must pursue the justice he needs. He becomes a man obsessed. His conviction is simple: his life’s work¬óor for that matter, anyone’s work¬ó should be acknowledged by those who stand to benefit. And while paying the toll for refusing to compromise his dignity, this everyday David will try the unthinkable: to bring Goliath to his knees.

Veteran producer March Abraham, who is credited with such notable films as “Spy Game” and “Children of Men”) makes a so-so directing debut from a screenplay by Philip Railsbcak (who penned “The Stars Fell on Henrietta”), based on John Seabrook’s famous 1993 New Yorker article of the same name. In his magazine article, Seabrook set the tone, when he wrote: “Bob’s remarkable success has made him one of the most famous inventors in the country, a hero to thousands of inventors with their own patent-infringement horror stories to tell.” But helmer Abraham illustrates rather than illuminates these significant issues in the most conventional way to the point where Bob’s idiosyncratic personality and his unique case become yet another case of social injustice.

Bob’s case is framed as a classy American victory tale–at a price, as Kearns’ sheer persistence served as the source of his success as well as undoing, even if the film makes it clear that long, arduous struggle was never about personal gain, but about fighting abuse, injustice, and exploitation by the rich and powerful. Bob’s combats end with enormous personal cost to his family, career and sanity. The jury did rule that Ford had infringed Kearns’ patents, awarding him more than $10 million. Three years later, he was awarded $18.7 million from the Chrysler Corporation.

When this case first went to court, the most Ford had ever paid anyone for a patent was 11 cents per unit. At the end of the family’s lawsuit, inventors were slapping Kearns on the back because they were receiving an unheard of $2 per unit. At present, the auto industry still uses Kearns’ “Blinking Eye Motor” mechanism for the windshield wipers installed in most cars.

Technically speaking, the visual and production design of the usually brilliant Dante Spinotti (“The Insider,” “L.A. Confidential”) are just above the routine, and so is the costume scheme of Luis Sequeira.

Cast

Robert Kearns – Greg Kinnear
Phyllis Kearns – Lauren Graham
Gil Privick – Dermot Mulroney
Dennis Kearns – Jake Abel
Frank Sertin – Daniel Roebuck
Charles Defao – Tim Kelleher
Judge Michael Franks – Bill Smitrovich
Gregory Lawson – Alan Alda

Credits

A Universal release of a Universal Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment presentation of a Barber/Birnbaum/Strike production.
Produced by Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber, Michael Lieber.
Executive producers: Jon Glickman, J. Miles Dale, Eric Newman, Tom Bliss.
Directed by Marc Abraham.
Screenplay: Philip Railsback, based on the New Yorker article by John Seabrook.
Camera: Dante Spinotti.
Editor: Jill Savitt.
Music: Aaron Zigman.
Production designer: Hugo Lucyzc-Wyhowski.
Art director: Patrick Banister.
Costume designer: Luis Sequeira.
Sound: Glen Gauthier.
Supervising sound editor: Darren King.
Re-recording mixer: Jon Taylor.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 119 Minutes.