Friday, October 3, 2008

An auto part sparks a movie

Finally, the movie you've been waiting for -- a look at the discovery of the intermittent windshield wiper. I know, it sounds preposterous. Who in their right moviegoing mind would want to see a movie about an auto part?

Well, you might think more kindly of this subject if I told you that Frank Capra might have found it interesting. Here's why?
An obscure engineering professor, who'll ultimately battles corporate giants, makes a small but useful discovery. He figures out how to make intermittent windshield wipers work for cars. Giddy with the joy of invention, our hero takes his gadget to the Ford Motor Company. He hopes they'll commit to buying all the wipers he can manufacture.

Ford is impressed and agreeable, but just when prospects seem to be at their rosiest, Ford drops the deal. Some time later, Ford manufactures a car with -- you guessed it -- intermittent wipers. The little guy feels ripped off. His buoyancy turns to depression, and he begins the long, obsessive process of trying to prove that he -- not Ford's engineers -- fixed the problems that had prevented such wipers from working in the past. A host of patent infringement suits ensues.

I'm oversimplifying, but then so does "Flash of Genius,'' a movie that tells the story of Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear), the Michigan engineer who spent the majority of his adult life trying to get recognition (and money) for his invention. Like the suits Kearns filed, the movie isn't always successful, but his story makes for an interesting aside in the ongoing, all-American entrepreneurial epic, and it reminds us that there was a time when people hoped to get rich by inventing something rather than by repackaging loans or by concocting other dubious financial sleights of hand.

For Kearns, the intermittent wiper went from being a fun idea to a life-threatening obsession. He eventually lost his marriage. His life was consumed by the desire to be proven right. He became a single-minded bore to just about everyone but himself, which doesn't always make for the most attractive movie character. But there were principles at stake: The movie argues that Kearns wanted credit more than money. He was like an artist who insisted that his work be signed. Kearns hoped to turn the intermittent wiper business into an activity that could engage and support his entire family.

Kinnear makes the most of Kearns' increasingly fractured personality, mixing gee-whiz enthusiasm with a growing dose of bitterness. Initially Kearns' wife (Lauren Graham) supports him, as does his business partner (Dermott Mulroney). Neither can stay onboard forever, though. Eventually, Kearn's maniacal focus on bringing Ford to justice drives almost everyone away.

Of all the performances, the best comes from Alan Alda in a small role as an attorney who eventually takes Kearns' case. Tempering commitment with pragmatism, Alda brings welcome life to all of his scenes.

I didn't believe that anyone could make an intriguing movie about a conflict over an auto part, and first-time director Marc Abraham, normally a producer, doesn't quite prove me wrong with this inspirationally oriented David-vs.-Goliath tale. But he does score a small victory by introducing us to a little known incident in American legal history. I don't know how many people will leave the theater cheering, but those who see "Flash of Genius," will add a fascinating footnote to a large body of big-screen stories about hope, betrayal and ultimate vindication.

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