Just keep telling yourself: It's not about intermittent windshield wipers.
Actually, that strategy for appreciating Flash of Genius probably won't work. While the movie can, in fact, be said to concern itself with bigger things, like passion and perseverance, it is fundamentally the tale of the man who invented the intermittent windshield wiper. Anyone who's not fascinated by automobiles, or sympathetic toward small-time tinkerers, would probably be happier watching a flick where cars zoom, crash or explode, rather than just rhythmically shed water.
Adapted from a New Yorker article, Flash of Genius does have a few selling points besides its car-geek appeal. It's a study in the malevolence of corporate power — a timely issue, as the air hisses from the American economy. And it's an opportunity to watch star Greg Kinnear flex his acting sinews in a rare outing as someone other than a slick playboy.
Kinnear takes the role of Robert Kearns, based on a real-life Detroit engineering professor and after-hours inventor. In 1967, inspired by the action of the human eye, Kearns patents an idea for wipers that automatically take a breather between strokes.
The major auto companies had been pursuing this idea for years, so Ford is interested when Kearns and his partner, Gil Privick (Dermot Mulroney in a period bob), demonstrate the device. The company agrees to buy the wipers from Kearns and Privick's new company, but later cancels the deal.
Soon, Kearns spots intermittent wipers on Ford's new models. He protests loudly, but Privick, along with Kearns' wife, Phyllis (Lauren Graham), warns that no one in the Motor City will challenge the major automakers. Alan Alda appears briefly as the lawyer who does take the case — but not as far as his obsessed client wants to go.
Kearns becomes increasingly fixated, even undertaking a failed crusade to Washington that lands him in a Maryland mental hospital. Phyllis leaves, taking the couple's six resentful children. But the kids develop an interest in Dad's case as it proceeds, rallying around him for the movie's climactic courtroom sequences.
Kearns is depicted as a devout Catholic and steadfast family man who continues to drive a Ford even after he concludes that the company wronged him. That tension between conformity and defiance complicates his character intriguingly, as does the movie's recognition that Kearns abandoned much of his life to his crusade — and in the process became an aggravation not just to Ford, but to his family and friends as well.
It's no secret that Kearns ultimately beat Ford, but Flash of Genius doesn't traffic in easy triumph. Although the rumpled inventor wins, he's not exactly a winner. Dante Spinotti's harsh, grainy cinematography feels intentionally unglamorous, and producer-turned-director Marc Abraham renders the drama's outcome subdued and weary.
Robert Kearns was responsible for a small technological refinement, and Abraham never pretends to be telling a bigger-than-life story. That gives Flash of Genius an appealing modesty. But it also makes it pretty hard for the viewer to forget that, style and modesty or no, this is a movie about intermittent windshield wipers.