'Flash of Genius' Movie Review

Flash of Genius Review
A scene from 'Flash of Genius.'. © Universal Pictures

The legal battle between the inventor of intermittent windshield wipers and the Ford Motor Company doesn't sound all that compelling. If you were to sort through a list of potential topics for a film, the story of the guy who came up with the first device to make windshield wipers slow down probably wouldn't jump to the top of the pile of possible plots. But Flash of Genius, a true David vs. Goliath tale, turns out to be a riveting drama that's less about the invention and more about one man's relentless fight for the recognition he deserved that had been denied him by a corporate giant.

Producer Marc Abraham makes his feature film directing debut with the unlikely story based on true events. Abraham may be a newcomer behind the camera, but he steers this one near perfectly. Set in Detroit in the 1960s, Flash of Genius is a moving film - although definitely not a feel-good epic - that's well-paced, well-written, and superbly acted.

The Story

College professor/inventor Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear) was a hard-working married man with six kids and a middle-class lifestyle. A bizarre accident on his honeymoon left him with a damaged eye, which strangely enough inspired him to invent the intermittent windshield wiper. A device we take for granted today, back in the '60s every automotive company was trying to come up with adjustable speed wipers. Robert believed windshield wipers should blink every so often, adjusting to the climate as does the human eye. His invention - "The Kearns Blinking Eye Motor" - sparked the interest of the Ford Motor Company and along with his longtime friend, automotive dealership owner Gil Previck (Dermot Mulroney), Robert made a deal to manufacture the units for Ford.

However as he was moving forward with renting a warehouse and setting up production, Ford told him they were no longer interested in his invention. The news was devastating to the entire Kearns family, but especially so to Robert who saw the sale of his invention to Ford as a way of making his family more comfortable.

Adding insult to injury, shortly after receiving the bad news Robert discovered his unit was indeed being installed in Ford's new Mustangs without his permission, without any recompense, and without crediting him with its invention.

Frustrated and with limited options, Robert decided to take on the Ford Motor Company in court. He and his partner held the patents, but proving the device Ford was using in their cars was actually the Kearns Blinking Eye Motor proved to be a decades-long uphill battle. Ford had millions at their disposal to fight Robert in court, but Robert was a man obsessed with justice. Any financial settlement he stood to receive paled in comparison with his desire to get Ford to admit they stole his invention.

Robert's lengthy fight took its toll on his relationship with his wife and children, his work, and his mental health. Still, the inventor would not give up and took on one of America's biggest companies in an effort to protect the rights of all inventors.

The Cast

Although it's a fine film, Greg Kinnear's performance is the biggest reason to see Flash of Genius. Kinnear is just fantastic as a man who starts out hopeful and full of pride at his accomplishment only to be plunged into a deep depression as his work is stolen out from under him.

There are many layers to Robert Kearns as portrayed in Flash of Genius, and Kinnear hits all the right buttons as a man desperately seeking justice against incredible odds.

While the film showcases Kinnear as Robert – he's in almost every scene – Lauren Graham, Alan Alda, and Dermot Mulroney provide ample support. Graham is fine as the wife who first stands by her man before ultimately coming to believe his fight with Ford means more to him than she or the kids. Mulroney's good as the sort of sleazy friend who undergoes a change of heart at a pivotal moment. And Alda puts in a brief yet electrifying appearance as a lawyer who can't get Robert to understand that the payoff offered by Ford is his best option for settling the case in a timely manner.

The Bottom Line

It's refreshing to see a major feature film that doesn't back-off from the truth.

There's no sugar-coating on this story, no hiding behind fictitious names. The Ford Motor Company is exposed for its ruthless behavior. The company's shameful dealings with Kearns back in the 1960s are laid out for all to see and Ford's name comes out of the film completely muddied.

I found it incredible how absorbed I was in this story, just because the subject matter didn't appeal to me at first glance. That same attitude may make the film a tough sale. How many people are just dying to see a movie about windshield wipers? I'm guessing the answer is very few. But Flash of Genius is so much more than a legal drama set in the automotive world. It's so much more than the story of one man and his invention. This film has plenty to offer and will put audiences through the emotional wringer right along with the main character.


Flash of Genius was directed by Marc Abraham and is rated PG-13 for brief strong language.