Did you ever wonder who fine-tuned the technology behind the intermittent windshield wiper?
Neither did I until I caught Marc Abraham's Flash of Genius, a sober biopic with a surprisingly destructive core that recounts how casual inventor Bob Kearns deciphered how one could pause a perpetually sweeping wiper blade, then fought the Ford Motor Company for proper credit.
Greg Kinnear does his best aw-shucks shuffle to play Kearns, a college professor and father of six who tinkered on his gizmo in the family basement. Kearns claims to have been inspired by the human eye, which automatically blinks every few seconds. He even labeled his invention the "Kearns Blinking-Eye Wiper" when he filed for a patent in 1964. Ironically, "the blink of an eye" also describes how quickly Ford snatched the technology away from Kearns when he and business partner Gil Privick (Dermot Mulroney) approached the automotive giant and struck what they thought was an ethical deal.
Abraham is a longtime producer who appears to be making a cut-and-dried underdog story with his directorial debut. Apple-pie Kearns personifies the American dream, and Kinnear projects this likeable warmth that backs up his hopeless stand against big business' corrupt practices. Former Gilmore Girl Lauren Graham keeps a stiff upper lip as Kearns' supportive spouse, making it easier for us to root for this David as he does everything in his power to take down the dishonest corporate Goliath.
But Genius frustrates (deliberately, mind you) as Kearns' struggle for justice drags on for decades, eroding his mental health and stability at home yet never depleting his confidence. Kearns takes the company to court, but Abraham's point, repeated often, is that Ford has two things Kearns lacks -- money and time. Kearns also has a different definition of "victory" than the rest of us do.
This tug-of-war between settling and winning takes shape late in the film when the great Alan Alda, always welcome, appears as a corporate lawyer who takes Kearns' case and negotiates a hefty financial settlement. Kearns promptly rejects Ford's offer because the company, as part of the deal, refuses to acknowledge his contributions to the wiper technology. In a few brief scenes, Alda manages to be the sparring partner, and dose of reality, Kinnear needs. But he can't help to answer the film's lingering question: At what cost comes the realization of one's lifelong dream?
They're swingin' in the rain.