The invention of an advanced windshield wiper would be a yawn-inducing topic, barely suitable for a basic cable doc, let alone a feature, yet Flash of Genius carries with it the tension and intrigue of a first-rate thriller. No shit.
While the script and direction are as polished as the bumper on a '69 Mustang, the real credit belongs to Greg Kinnear, playing a guy who's at once gutsy, weird, subtle and enthralling in one of the year's best performances. Yes, that Greg Kinnear, the one-time smarmy TV talking head who graduated from playing shallow himbos with outstanding turns in Auto Focus and Little Miss Sunshine and is now perfect for leading roles that require a certain gravitas and All-American charm.
Kinnear dons the rumpled sport coats of Dr. Robert Kearns, a real-life Detroit-area engineering professor and tinkerer, who drew his inspiration from a wedding night Champagne cork that blew straight into his left eye. At that moment Kearns wondered if a windshield wiper could be made to mimic a blinking human eyelid at different speeds — to better handle light rain — and he fiddled with the idea for years in his garage. By the mid-'60s he had patents and a working prototype, plus an auto supplier partner Gil Previk (a fine Dermot Mulroney) to help manufacture the unit, and the Big Three chomped at the bit to get hold of it. They took the concept to Ford, first receiving promises and then years of runaround, and then nothing. When an emotionally wounded Kearns sees his creation touted at a glitzy Ford product roll-out party, first-time director Marc Abraham treats the scene like a horror show, and Kinnear takes the news like a sucker-punch.
Such scenes lift Flash above the standard assembly line product; its steady intensity never drips with the weepy histrionics familiar to "one man vs. the odds" tales. It's Capra without the corn, and Kearns remains a prickly, not always likable character, alienating his friends, family and once understanding wife (Lauren Graham) through decades of litigation. As Alan Alda's magnificently smooth lawyer points out, corporations "don't know time or money" and are willing to stall the lone inventor and steal his idea because they've the power to do it. While there are the usual biopic distortions — the timeline's compressed and some facts shift —the movie retains a sense of truth, because it mostly is, in all its fastidious detail. At times it's fussy and drab like its unbuckling hero, who never waivers, because, ultimately, the story is not about changing the world, but not allowing it to change you.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].