In 1986, Tom Wolfe published a now-famous article in Popular Mechanics called “Land of Wizards.” In it, he examined the world of American inventors — those obsessive individuals whose leaps of inspiration move society forward both technologically and culturally. Wolfe contended that, despite the claims of industry and university research departments, much crucial innovation has been the work of lone visionaries, some of them only lightly educated (Thomas Edison had three years of public schooling) and most operating far from the well-funded precincts of business and academia (the Wright brothers were Ohio bicycle merchants). In the modern age, Wolfe wrote, many of these basement geniuses have had one galling thing in common: They were compelled to watch helplessly as giant corporations stole their inventions and made millions off them without ever compensating the inventors. The companies were able to do this with the help of teams of corporate lawyers, who could bury the inventors in (literally) tons of paperwork and tie them up in expensive litigation that might drag on for years, until either surrender or death on the part of the inventors ensued.
In 1993, New Yorker writer John Seabrook published a similar, but more measured, article called “The Flash of Genius,” about Bob Kearns, the mechanical engineer who invented the intermittent automobile windshield wiper and was infuriated when the Ford Motor Company brazenly appropriated it without providing credit or compensation. Seabrook was meticulous in noting that Ford had already been working on an intermittent wiper and had come up with a (seriously flawed) design; and that much real invention was, in fact, being done in many areas by Ford researchers. Nevertheless, Kearns had the patents to press a case against Ford — a 12-year battle that is now the basis of a movie called “Flash of Genius,” in which Greg Kinnear, playing Kearns, gives one of the most carefully modulated and moving performances of his career.
Windshield wipers and patent hearings wouldn’t seem to offer much in the way of drama for a movie, but veteran producer Marc Abraham, here directing his first picture, nicely balances the technical and the human elements of the story. We see Kearns eagerly demonstrating the prototype version of his intermittent wipers for Ford researchers in a company parking lot. Kearns won’t let them examine the mechanism at first, but later some Ford suits wheedle it away from him on the pretext that government regulations require that they see it. Kearns thinks he has a deal with Ford to allow him to manufacture his wipers for the company, but a few months later Ford suddenly cuts him loose and begins incorporating an identical wiper assembly in its cars.
Ford stonewalled Kearns — who wanted an admission by the company that it had stolen his invention more than he wanted money — for years. In 1978, he filed suit against Ford for patent infringement. Against the advice of the presiding judge, he represented himself. Along the way, Ford, increasingly alarmed by Kearns’ pigheaded determination, offered increasingly lavish settlements. The company wouldn’t admit violating his patents, though, and he turned down the deals.
Kinnear captures the two irreconcilable sides of Kearns’ nature — his exultant idealism and his unyielding cussedness — with marvelous assurance. His inventor is a church-going father who’s deeply devoted to his wife (glowingly played by Lauren Graham) and their six children; but he’s also a man in the grip of an obsession that’s tearing both him and his family apart. The movie’s courtroom scenes have a David-versus-Goliath spirit that’s rousing in a very old-Hollywood way. But we also see that Kearns is a heedless monomaniac, and possibly mentally unstable. When a sympathetic attorney named Lawson (played with smooth charm by Alan Alda) urges Kearns to accept one of Ford’s settlement offers, he’s baffled by his client’s refusal. “This is how justice is dispensed in this country,” Lawson gently explains. “By checkbooks.” Kearns, the last unbuyable man, isn’t buying it. He’s so intent on winning, on his own strict terms, that he can never see how much he’s likely to lose.
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