Glasgow Film Festival: Flash of Genius
Flash of Genius tells the remarkable true story of a little man who took on The Man and won. Paul Dale tells the story
As those old seat belt safety films (‘clunk click every trip’) fronted by Sir Jimmy Saville taught us – it’s difficult to make car safety stimulating. Flash of Genius, a David and Goliath style story based on the true story of university professor and part-time inventor Robert Kearns’ decades-long battle with the US automobile industry is certainly illuminating and moving, if rarely stimulating.
Based on a 1993 New Yorker article by John Seabrook, Flash of Genius revisits the troubling travails of typical Detroit family the Kearns between 1969 and 1983. Married with six children, local college professor Bob, played in the film by Greg Kinnear, and schoolteacher wife Phyllis (Lauren Graham) live the kind of hectic but satisfying lives of many medium income Midwesterners. Bob is a tinkerer and part-time inventor and when he invents the intermittent windshield wiper – a device that would eventually be used by every car in the world, he thinks he may have hit gold. Unbeknownst to him, the big three automobile manufacturers (Ford, Chrysler and General Motors) were, at the time, in a race to patent a wiper control mechanism, a crucial part of their plans to modernise the technology in their vehicles at the beginning of the 1970s. So when Bob took his invention to Ford, they basically hijacked his ‘Kearns’ Blinking Eye Motor’ and called it their own. By the time he twigged what they had done cars containing his invention were already on the road. Years of litigation followed (Alan Alda appears as a hotshot lawyer more interested in the settlement payments than Bob’s wish to have his work acknowledged) all of which took their toll on the Kearns’ family when Phyllis left him. Bob died in 2005 of brain cancer but Phyllis remembers those difficult times well. ‘It was like he had a drug problem – that obsession was so strong. I said to him one day, “Bob, I don’t know if I can take anymore of this. This is killing me.’ And he said, “This is no way to live a life, and without the lawsuit, there’s no life.” I realised how deep he was in it and the fact that he was losing his patent to these guys because they plucked it away from him.’
With the US automobile industry now struggling to survive the effects of depression, Flash of Genius feels like a film out of its time. Cut from the same corporate conspiracy cloth as Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich, the film’s star Kinnear still believes it’s a story worth telling. ‘Even if you were watching him go through this, there are moments where you want to stand up and say, “Bob, snap out of it!” But he goes through this battle, and you ultimately respect him for it.’ For Kinnear, Flash of Genius is among the most important films he has been involved with. ‘Just meeting the family and seeing their reaction to Bob’s story being realised in a movie was something I won’t forget. The idea that we all worked in tough conditions and long hours to try to get a story out there that has real meaning; I loved being a part of that.’
Flash of Genius, Cineworld Renfrew Street, Fri 20 Feb, 4pm and Sat 21 Feb, 6.15pm.