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Inspiration Comes to Those Who Blink
on October 8, 2008
I don't know how accurately "Flash of Genius" portrays the real Robert Kearns. If he was anything like Greg Kinnear's representation, he may be one of the most relatable people I know of. In the film, Kearns is passionate, determined, stubborn, and cursed with a one-track mind. He was a college engineering professor and an independent inventor with an absolute sense of right and wrong, and because the Ford Motor Company wrongs him, he puts all his energy into making it right. We may not all be inventors, but I think it's safe to say that most of us understand why he does what he does, and that's because we've all been passionate about something. This isn't to say that we can completely side with him; as admirable as his intentions are, he ends up neglecting his wife, his children, and his job, and he unfairly drags his family through a twelve-year legal nightmare. One wonder whether or not the journey was worth it.
The Kearns character is the lifeblood of "Flash of Genius." He holds everything together, and that's because the filmmakers develop him far more than any other character. This was done on purpose, I suspect. This is his dream, his effort, his obsession--everyone else is either along for the ride or left standing at the curb. The film's structure is just as narrow-minded as Kearns is, which will be problematic if you want a story that develops all of its characters. I wasn't bothered by it, and that's because I wanted to see things from his perspective. I wanted to understand why he believed so strongly when others didn't. I wanted to be convinced that he was doing the right thing by fighting a gigantic corporation that ripped off his windshield wiper design. I'm not too sure about that last one; he refuses each and every offer to settle, even when handsome sums of money are involved. The principle is to never give in, and while it's a good principle, it's also not very helpful for a family's financial security.
Where the film falters is in matters of time passage. While the occasional, "Four years later," is displayed, there are still far too many gaps. Kearns' children grow up before our eyes, and his hair seems to get grayer with every passing scene. I'm not entirely sure what year the story begins in. I can only go by actual history, which tells us that Kearns first came up with the idea of the intermittent windshield wiper in 1963, as he and his family were driving on a misty night in Detroit, Michigan. In the film, Kearns is bothered by the fact that his car's wipers can only move at a set speed. He then remembers his honeymoon night ten years earlier, in which a champagne cork hit him in the eye; with a little engineering, windshield wipers just might be able to operate in much the same way as an eyelid, which blinks at an intermittent rate. He proceeds to build a prototype in his basement.
In 1967, Kearns and his business partner, Gil Privick (Dermot Mulroney), patent the new wiper system. They then show the device to the Ford Motor Company, who seem genuinely interested, if a little too curious; they want to know how the device works, but Kearns won't tell them, not until a deal can be worked out. A Ford exec (Mitch Pileggi) appears intrigued on the surface, but we suspect that underneath, he cares nothing for Kearns. He just wants the device, and true to form, he makes it so that the company backs out of the deal and installs Kearns' wiper system in all the newest car models. It's a reliable but nonetheless unoriginal method for developing a movie villain. This isn't to say that such people don't exist in real life; I'm well aware that major corporations--and the people who run them--have been known to be greedy and corrupt. But since we're talking about a movie here, it might have been better if the filmmakers had taken a different approach.
Kearns carries his anger and resentment all the way to 1982, when, after years of fighting uphill legal battles, he was finally able to sue the Ford Motor Company. Because his relationship with his attorney (Alan Alda) had soured, Kearns decided to represent himself. Some will see this movie and determine that Kearns gave up too much to get that far. It takes thirteen years to see the process through, and at a certain point, his wife, Phyllis (Lauren Graham), and their children begin to feel abandoned. On top of that, Kearns is continuously offered large cash settlements in exchange for dropping the lawsuit. Because they refuse to admit any wrongdoing, Kearns always turns their offers down.
On the other hand, some audiences will completely side with Kearns, believing that the principle is more important than the money. I have to admit that I'm on the fence. Is it worth it to keep fighting a powerful corporation, even when you know you're right? Is it worth it to stand up for what you believe in while your loved ones are left in the sidelines? What makes "Flash of Genius" work so well is the fact that we're made to see everything from a very single-minded perspective, which in turn allows us to understand the main character. I'm surprised it worked, considering the fact that stories told from multiple perspectives are more complex, more thought provoking, and more compelling. We're immersed in one man's quest for justice, and we see him through to the end. I won't reveal what happens, even if you know everything about case. But rest assured, it ends appropriately, and it reminds us that, with determination, even insignificant people can make a big difference.