Flash of Genius – A Movie Review

This was a 2008 release that’s based on a true story.  Greg Kinnear plays Bob Kearns, an engineering professor in the Detroit area in the 1960s who along with his wife Phyllis (played by Lauren Graham from the Gilmore Girls) and their six kids are living a happy mid-western existence.  One day Bob was driving and he came across the difficulty of having single speed wipers in a light rain.  If he left the windshield wipers on then the window would get dry and the blades would squeak and streak, but if he left them off, he couldn’t see.  Being an inventor, he came up with an electronic device that allowed the wipers to work with a variable delay between cycles, now known as intermittent wipers.  With the help of a friend who had an automotive component company he approaches Ford Motor Company about them purchasing his wiper invention to use in their cars.  They convince him they need to have a copy of the device to get it approved by the federal agency that oversees automotive safety equipment and he provides it to them.  Kearns leases factory space and goes into production on the device.  Then Ford backs out of the deal and starts producing essentially the same device on their own.

The rest of the movie chronicles Bob’s twenty-year crusade to bring Ford to justice for stealing his invention.  During that time, he loses his job, his wife and almost his mind.  At a certain point he becomes so desperate that he jumps on a bus to Washington D.C. to “talk to the White House” about his problem.  This lands him in a mental ward for several months.  When he gets out, he hires a lawyer to sue Ford for stealing his idea.  The lawyer (played by Alan Alda) gets an agreement from Ford to pay Bob several hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle.  But when he finds out that Ford wouldn’t be admitting to the theft, just paying him off, Bob balks and refuses to give up his crusade against Ford.  At this point he’s several years into this nightmare and without a job.  His wife, exhausted with raising six kids and supporting the family leaves him.

Now alone and miserable, he spends all his waking hours teaching himself the law applying to theft of intellectual property and fighting off Ford’s counter-suits and other delaying tactics.  Finally, twelve years after initiating the effort his suit goes to trial.  He represents himself and blunders through the various amateur shortcomings of being a make-believe lawyer.  But as the end of the trial approaches Ford’s representative suddenly offers him thirty million dollars to drop the suit.  He refuses and everything comes down to the jury decision.

I won’t give away the ending but I will comment on the dilemma of this poor man.  Basically, he traded away the best years of his life and the happiness of a family for the chance to get justice from a court over being robbed of an invention.  I am an engineer but I’ve never had a “flash of genius.”  But I think as much as I am a vindictive bastard, I’d have recognized that spending decades of my prime and losing the woman I love to be proven right is an obsessive-compulsive fool’s errand.  Even if you win, you’ve lost.  A corporation is an immortal being with godlike power.  It can outlive you and overpower you.  The best thing you can do is steer clear of them.  They are by definition soulless and amoral.  I think the lesson learned from this movie is that life is short.  Justice that costs you your reason for living is too costly for real people.  It’s a good movie and the character Bob is a recognizable type that I have met several times in my life.  And I felt sorry for him but I think he made a big mistake.  Good movie about a cautionary tale for nerds.  Don’t trust the man.