Movie review: “Flash of Genius”

Flash of Genius is an inspirational David-and-Goliath story of an inventor who takes on one of the largest car manufacturers in the world. It is based on the life of Robert Kearns, a professor of engineering at an American college, who patented the design of an intermittent windshield wiper, and his protracted legal battle against the Ford Motor Company who quite unashamedly stole his design and incorporated it into their next line of cars (Trailer and Plot Summary).

“The film’s title is derived from patent law terminology, in effect from 1941 to 1952, that argued the idea for an invention could come to someone out of nowhere and without years of working on it beforehand.” (Wikipedia)

The film starts in 1963. Robert (Greg Kinnear) is happily married to Phyllis (Lauren Graham), and the two of them have six boisterous children (Dennis, Kathy, Tim, Maureen, Pat, and baby Bob). One day, while driving in very light rain with his family, he realises that the constant movement of the wiper blades, moving back and forth across the wind screen, is irritating his eyes (he is almost completely blind in his left eye after it was hit by a champagne cork on his wedding night).

He notices that the eye naturally blinks every couple of seconds, rather than all the time. His inventive brain kicks into gear, and after experimenting with bits and pieces in his basement, surrounded by his kids, he comes up with a design for a wiper blade motor that is modelled on the intermittent blinking of the human eye.

When he demonstrates the idea to Gil Privick (Dermot Mulroney), his friend from childhood, Gil encourages him to develop a prototype and helps him to patent it. Once they are sure that it works, the two of them drive out to the nearby Ford factory, where they give a demonstration to the researchers there, as well as to executive Macklin Tyler (Mitch Pileggi) (a sleezeball who subsequently reveals himself as quite willing to lie under oath).

They are clearly interested, because the company has in fact been working on the problem for a while without coming up with a workable solution. When Kearns sticks to his guns and refuses to reveal how his design works, Tyler eventually asks him to submit a business plan in which he sets out the costs, and to give them a sample unit. He does so.

But then he doesn’t hear from them again, and they refuse to return his phone calls. Some time later, frustrated by their stone-walling tactics, Kearns gate-crashes a function, where Ford is launching the latest model of the Mustang – WITH an intermittent wiper. He is devastated.

Say it out loud with me: “The bastards”.

He is unceremoniously chucked out on his ear and, bit by bit, descends into a profound depression. The rest of the movie traces his journey from a deep sense of hopeless despair, to gradual empowerment and a mounting defiance to persevere in his pursuit of public acknowledgement by Ford that the original design was his. It’s a sobering thought to realise that there are most likely countless ideas and inventions, even patented ones, that are being quite blatantly stolen or plagiarised by powerful companies and corporations around the world, who would never admit to any wrongdoing.

Even though you know where the story is going and what will happen in the end, it made for compelling viewing. Kearns is not a flamboyantly articulate man in court, and he is clearly the underdog in that cut-throat environment, but his steadfast refusal to accept any deals (because it is not money or greed that drives him, but a desire for truth) is quietly inspirational. It is a little slow-moving in parts, and don’t expect anything flashy, but it’s a good story.

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