‘Flash of Genius’: Reality – the movie version

October 4, 2008



In the midst of a presidential campaign that seems calculated to turn the truth inside out at every opportunity, a movie like “Flash of Genius” seems both right on the money and too good to be believed.


Based on a true story, “Flash of Genius” stars Greg Kinnear as Bob Kearns, a college engineering professor and part-time inventor who took on Ford Motor Co. and the rest of Detroit. His cause: Kearns invented the intermittent windshield wiper, then had the temerity to insist on being paid for his invention when Ford (and the rest of Detroit) blatantly stole it from him.


So he put his career – and, eventually, his family and his life – on hold to battle for the principle: that the little guy had every reason to believe that American courts would protect his rights.


Or at least that’s what this movie would have you believe. It’s a rousing tale to be sure, with a watery-eyed Kinnear standing in admirably for Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda, who would have played this role 50 years ago. It’s a perfect David/Goliath tale, with everybody’s favorite whipping-boy – the American auto industry, whipping-boy for our collective petroleum addiction – as the bad guy who’s headed for a fall.


So I’m really torn here.

On the one hand, you’ve got the automobile industry, which eventually lost a huge lawsuit and paid Kearns millions of dollars for infringing on his patent, then tried to pay him off and shut him up. It’s so picture-perfect, so ready for its close-up at a moment when a certain segment of the country is read to unload on Detroit for being so much a part of the problem for so long.


On the other hand, you’ve got the real story – which is that, while Kearns battled these industrial giants to the U.S. Supreme Court, he took his time figuring out that, in fact, he’d been wronged. While the movie conveys how long it took him to win his case (Kinnear goes from wearing a rather obvious hairpiece to what appears to be his natural hairline, augmented with gray), it makes it seem like much more of a straight line than it apparently was.


Which means that, as certain I’m sitting here drawing breath, Ford, Chrysler and every other corporate entity that tried to swindle the real-life Kearns will be able to point at the movie and say, “Not factually accurate,” as though that excuses the actual facts of the case, which are damning enough. They’ll tar it with the ubiquitous “Hollywood elitist” brush – as though geography dictates veracity and being elite (in other words, being smart to the point of being among the best and brightest) is something to be denigrated and feared.


Of course, if “Flash of Genius” were just a fiction film, critics would snipe that it was too improbable – that, in real life, David seldom beats Goliath. But Kearns did win – and Kinnear is entertainingly vulnerable and idealistic in the role. It’s the kind of movie you root for. You want to like it, even as you feel it manipulating you.


It features a complex performance by Lauren Graham as Kearns’ long-suffering wife and a more straightforward one by Dermot Mulroney as Kearns’ pal, who pulls him into the Ford deal, then backs away from him when things turn hinky, for fearing of offending Ford.


(And, in fact, though Mulroney’s character helps Kearns, he also hinders him: At a crucial moment, all it would take is a simple appearance on the stand by Mulroney to shore up Kearns’ suddenly shaky courtroom case.)


There’s no nuance in the portrayal of Ford, but why would there be? The bullying attempts to settle the claim, after it became apparent that Kearns had both the law and the evidence on his side, were established during the trial.


The bottom line is that “Flash of Genius” is solid movie-making but built to burnish the Kearns legend. American individualism = good. Corporate greed = bad.


You don’t see that in the headlines everyday. Oh, wait a minute…



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