Greg Kinnear Has a Flash of Inspiration
by Ronald Sklar
Originally posted on October 3, 2008.
“I’m not gonna lie to you, it didn’t grab me,” Greg Kinnear says about his first hear-tell of the concept for the Universal film Flash of Genius (originally called Windshield Wiper Man).
However, after doing his due diligence, Kinnear found the David-versus-Goliath story to be both bigger than life and warmly, genuinely human (much like the actor himself, who, in a little more than a decade, has quietly managed to become a joyous and regular part of America’s movie-going experience).
Kinnear plays one Bob Kearns, a real-life professor who, in the push-button sixties, invented and patented the intermittent windshield wiper (you heard me).
At first, Kearns is wooed by the intrigued Ford Motor Company, and, in his innocent enthusiasm, is over the moon even before the astronauts. Thinking he hit the happy highway, Kearns prepares himself and his brood for life as large as a Ford Galaxie 500.
Unfortunately, those happy endings only happen in the movies.
Instead, Kearns’ dreams are stalled when Ford decides to go it alone with the wiper, leaving him and his empty pockets out in the pouring rain, patent or no patent.
Although he is constantly being talked into a comfortable financial settlement (by Alan Alda as a crusading attorney and Dermot Mulroney as Kearns’ backer/pal with a groovy sixties hairdo), Kearns desires more than mere money: he wants Ford to admit they stole his idea.
So he makes himself a pain in the ass, a ping in Ford’s powerful engine. Acting as his own counsel, an obsessed Kearns fights the corporate giant – and the legal system – over the course of decades.
His family, who could have lived happily ever after from some sweet settlement money, instead suffers from devastating financial and emotional wreckage, as well as big-time bullying from one of the most powerful companies on Earth.
Sound a little off the beaten path for a principled-man-versus-corporate-greed flick? If so, you may first want to conduct an exit interview with the preview audiences, who were cheering at Kearns’ small (and then larger) victories, and also laughing aloud at the inventor’s inventive methods of defending himself in court.
The crowd cheered up a storm – a storm that could require windshield wipers.
“Anyone who understands patent law will understand the magnitude of what we were up against,” Kinnear says. “There is no drier, more uninteresting kind of law, but at the end of the day, this is really a very small story about a guy and his family and the damage that was done to him.”
Like Silkwood and other films before it, the devil can have his damn details. Here, the real story is in the story. You won’t need to take the LSATs or study engineering templates before you buy a ticket. It’s more heart than brain.
“I was thinking about why I liked it so much,” Kinnear says of Kearns’ tale, “and I kind of felt that many of these ‘Little Guy Takes On the Corporation’ films have big, sweeping, cinematic themes. They tend to deal with these big issues about mercury in the water or nuclear power. Big, big themes. And yet [Flash of Genius] was about a guy who invented a wiper mechanism. Not that that’s not a great invention, but because it’s seems so small potatoes, you have to set that aside. The story can’t really be about wipers. You realize that it’s a battle over principle. He gets [Ford] to acknowledge that what they did was wrong, and it felt like that was worth a lot.”