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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

Flash Of Genius

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Las Vegas Round The Clock - http://www.lasvegasroundtheclock.com
Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also a consultant for Columbia College Chicago in Adjunct Faculty Affairs
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If you’ve ever wondered exactly how the intermittent windshield wiper came into being, this is the film for you.  Based on the true story of engineering professor Bob Kearns, “Flash of Genius” is the tale of the little guy who took on automotive corporate giants in a deck stacked completely against him, rife with betrayals, double crosses and outright lies.  In Detroit, yet.


1960’s suburban Detroit, to be exact.  Family man Kearns is a good Irish Catholic with six kids and a loving wife, Phyllis (Lauren Graham).  Money’s tight naturally.  In a flash of genius, or the moment of illuminating inspiration that all inventors experience at the core of a new idea, Kearns invents what will come to be known as the intermittent windshield wiper, incorporating a slight pause between sweeps; it’s a much needed visual aid in a certain type of light precipitation.  Patterned after the blinking action of a human eye, his simple invention is nonetheless revolutionary and destined to become standard issue on every auto yet to be manufactured.

Kearns likens his invention to his own personal Mona Lisa, the thing he was put on earth to create.  He is obsessed by the prototype in his basement, devoting hours to refining, improving and streamlining his brainchild.

Local auto parts supplier and friend Gil Privick (Dermot Mulroney) teams up with Kearns to market the device.  Ford Motor Company is the first to witness Kearns’ product in action, but after initial enthusiasm, the auto giant backs out of the fledgling deal, stating that they already had a similar device in the works.  Kearns is devastated but decides to fight back.  Ford keeps trying to pay him off every few years – Kearns will have none of it without a formal admission of theft on the automaker’s part.  Decades pass.

During this time the single-minded Kearns racks up big losses, and not only monetary; his wife, his best friend, his children, his social status, and very nearly his mind desert the intrepid inventor during his quixotic quest.

His lawyer Gregory Lawson (Alan Alda) seems to appreciate Kearns’ outrage at first, until his stubborn client refuses a hefty $100,000 settlement check – because it once again came with no admission of theft on Ford’s part.  Lawson changes his tune from supportive to derisive in an instant.  Attorney/client relationship severed, Kearns is on his own once more.

All of this culminates with Kearns getting his day in court and the legal arguments that ensue.  Representing himself, Kearns answers his critics and their attorneys with succinct, often profound assertions that move both the court and the viewer.  Words are all the inventor has now, and he makes clever use of a dictionary to illustrate a point about originality.  By putting his rage to work for him, he arms his slingshot with a stone and aims it ever so carefully at Ford’s massive machinery.  Will he do enough damage to be paid damages?

This is producer Marc Abraham’s (Children of Men) directorial debut and he succeeds at keeping the audience interested in Kearns’ obsessive battle.   Abraham goes for authenticity more than action in this war of ideas and words; he also co-wrote the screenplay along with Philip Railsback and Scott Frank (Out of Sight).

Kinnear carries the film and has the sincerity to pull off the outrage, betrayal and hurt required to bring Kearns’ story to life.  He keeps the audience riding shotgun with him, up close to the windshield, and if they could testify on his behalf, they surely would.  Kinnear makes Kearns a quiet but determined working class hero.

Alan Alda is riveting in his two short scenes, able to play both sides of an issue as if trying on shirts.  Lauren Graham is miscast as Bob’s long-suffering wife, looking too youthful to have borne her large brood.  Even as a matron she looks more like a small town ingénue trying to portray a mom in a high school production.  Dermot Mulroney does justice to his role as a sellout former friend with just a touch of shame to haunt him now and then.

Bob Kearns passed away in 2005 at the age of 77 leaving behind a legacy of safer road travel for millions who must drive in inclement weather.

You might say his inspiration was more of a splash of genius.  And to think it all happened with the blink of an eye.