Flash of Genius (review)

I wish Flash of Genius were’t quite so staid, because it tells an important story, and one the likes of which we hear less and less of the more necessary they become: Robert Kearns, a Detroit engineering professor and part-time inventor, developed a device in the early 1960s to allow car windshield wipers to operate intermittently — it’s a bigger safety issue than you might think, and this was a problem that, apparently, the big automakers had been trying to solve for years. But instead of working with Kearns, Ford stole his invention, which soon spread to the lines of all the other automakers. And then Kearns spent 30 years fighting one of the biggest corporations on the planet for a simple acknowledgment that what Ford did was wrong. (This is all true stuff: Philip Railsback’s script is based on a New Yorker article by John Seabrook.) This earnest film, the directorial debut from producer Marc Abraham (Children of Men), focuses mostly on Kearns decades-long fight, but it fails to ignite with the kind of fire it should, except only accidentally, when Greg Kinnear (Ghost Town), as Kearns, shows us flashes of his genius in depicting the darkest side of obsession: How far is too far to go for a matter of principle? Kinnear’s hauntedness reminds us how sadly infrequently he gets to show off his deeply intriguing dramatic chops. The unfortunate smallness of the film — it should feel bigger — does, however, probably means it plays better on DVD (it’s now available in Region 1) than it does on the big screen (it’s just opened in U.K. cinemas).

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