Flash of Genius (2008) dir. Marc Abraham
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Lauren Graham, Dermot Mulroney, Alan Alda
“Flash of Genius” is a great story stuck in a mediocre film. It has the misfortune of comparison to some truly great films about obsessive everymen battling big bureaucracy – Michael Mann’s “The Insider”, Oliver Stone’s “JFK” and David Fincher’s “Zodiac”. “Flash of Genius” is probably a more compelling story than any of these films, but first time director Marc Abraham just doesn’t seem to have the chops to take his film to the level of these cine-masters.
Greg Kinnear plays Bob Kearns, a family man, college professor and inventor hobbyist on his spare time. His moment of inspiration is the intermittent windshield wiper, which he calls “the blinking eye wiper”. Kearns makes a prototype, gathers some investors, files his patent and then approaches the Ford Motor Company. Kearns appears to have a deal, but at the last moment Ford backs off thereby crushing his dreams. Adding fuel to the fire is when Kearns’ discovers that Ford has copied his idea and released the intermittent wiper as their own design.
Kearns then sets off on a 14 year odyssey to reclaim his rights as an inventor and his dignity as a working man. In pursuing Ford he alienates his wife and family. Kearns is even offered vast sums of money to settle, but what he truly desires and will not get is a formal and public apology. Kearns’ stubbornness is both his greatest asset and his great weakness. It’s only in the end does he realize the true cost of his battle.
Abraham and his writer are careless with their narrative structure. There’s about 14 years of time to span, and they spend a lot of hopskotching through the years – aging Kinnear slightly and changing the actors who play his kids. It’s a seamless transition, but Abraham rarely stops to craft a truly satisfying scene which broadens the characters. For example at one point Kearns is sent to a mental hospital. This comes very suddenly to the audience and lasts for one brief scene before he’s out and back obsessing about Ford.
What we also never get to see is the evidence of his obsession. We see the results but never the action. There are about three or four shots in the film where we actually see Kearns’ research and investigation. At one point he asks an assistant to bring him his original resistors. We see Kearns enter the reference library of law documents and get overwhelmed by the mass of information to sort through. And at one point he opens his garage door and we see piles of bankers boxes stacked to the ceiling. These three scenes make up no more then 4 or 5 shots and less than 5 mins of screentime.
This brings us to the rousing courtroom finale. In the movies courtroom trials are not only meant to convince the fake jury, but we, the audience, as well. Kearns and the Ford lawyers dance around each other but we never see the nuts and bolts argument as to how Kearns convinced the jury that Ford stole his idea. Abraham concentrates solely on righteousness and the honorability of Kearns’ journey, and doesn’t put in the effort which Kearns’ story deserves.
What made Robert Graysmith’s (Zodiac) and Jim Garrison’s (JFK) journey so compelling was their precise attention to the minute details of their cases. And David Fincher and Oliver Stone, who were as obsessive as their subjects, put the evidence on the screen. Graysmith, Garrison and even Jeffrey Wigand (The Insider) were all small fish in big ponds, but we wanted them to succeed because we actually saw the strenuous effort is took to win their cases. By the end of “Flash of Genius” we’re on Kearns’ side only because we know it’s a true story and that it’s been 2 hours of screentime and 14 years of real time.
With all that said, the reason why “Flash of Genius” never sinks is because of Greg Kinnear. Few star actors have greater common man likeability than he. He’s certainly one of the most underrated leading men working in Hollywood today. His expressive eyes and forehead creases talk to us as much as the dialogue on the page. He single handedly carries the film through two deadweight acts to the rousing finale.
Along with Kinnear’s performance the film is saved by a truly satisfying third act. BEWARE, SPOILERS AHEAD...With Kearns’ victory he’s also given the cold hard realization of the true cost of his journey – the loss of his wife. He wins back his dignity, but doesn’t win back his wife. Abraham leaves it to the audience to decide if it was worth it all or not. Was Kearns a noble champion, or a selfish fool?