Flash of Genius
Drizzle drizzle swish. Drizzle drizzle swish.
For much of his life, such sounds must've reverberated through inventor Bob Kearns' mind—the sound of rain wiped away by his greatest creation: the intermittent windshield wiper. That invention, and his fight to receive credit for it, consumed Kearns for decades, sucking him into legal battles with the biggest automakers in the world. By the time he died in 2005, Bob Kearns had collected more than $30 million in settlements from such companies as Ford and Chrysler, according to The Washington Post. But watching the period biopic Flash of Genius, you can't help but wonder if his life was filled with more drizzle than swish.
According to the movie, Bob engineered the wipers in his basement, with a little soldering help from two of his six children. It wasn't his first invention, but he knew right away it was his best—his "Mona Lisa," he later says.
He partners with friend Gil Privick, snagging the rights to manufacture the windshield wiper motors himself. He demonstrates the device to Ford Motor Company, which shows some serious wiper love. He leases a vacant manufacturing building and starts daydreaming about how his life is about to change.
It does. But not in the way he wants.
First, Ford tells Bob and Gil it's no longer interested in Bob's wiper. Several months later, Bob sees some shiny new Fords cruise through Detroit one wet evening, their wipers slapping away the rain in a strangely familiar, intermittent fashion. Hmmmm. It seems as though Ford has stolen Bob's Mona Lisa without so much as a thank you. And, as Bob quickly discovers, it has no intention of giving it back.
Bob spirals downward though irritability, paranoia and, eventually, a nervous breakdown. He literally runs away, and police find him on a bus, dressed in his bathrobe and pajamas, mumbling about how he's got to get to Washington to meet with the vice president.
So he spends some time in a mental hospital and then comes back, presumably, a changed man.
Only, he hasn't changed all that much. He's still obsessed with getting his rightful due, and soon he decides to take Ford to court. The automotive giant tries to buy him off with progressively higher settlements, but he's having none of that: He's not after money. He wants justice.
"This is how justice is dispensed in this country," Bob's lawyer reminds him. "With checkbooks."
But Bob pushes on, eventually taking the suit on himself when his lawyer refuses to go any farther.
Early on, we get the sense that family's the most important thing in Bob's life. He and his wife, Phyllis, obviously love each other, and Bob seems to be engaged in his six children's lives—though, admittedly, a lot of their family activity seems to revolve around Bob's inventions. They help out in his workshop, celebrate his accomplishments and, after a particularly successful run of the intermittent wiper, the family has a celebratory dinner where the whole clan is christened "The Kearns Corporation."
But dedication to family eventually runs up against another virtue: Bob's unwavering sense of right and wrong.
Bob's a Detroit-area professor when he's not inventing things, and he reminds his students that engineers can use their smarts for good or evil, telling them that many moral decisions aren't as clear cut as "deciding between [building] a heart valve and a gas chamber." When Ford pilfers his intellectual property, it's as if his every notion of justice is torched at the stake, and he'll stop at nothing to make them pay.
"This is not about money," he says. "This is about right and wrong."
Is that a positive element? Taken to the extremes Bob takes it, perhaps not, and we'll deal with that more later. But he nevertheless becomes an inspiration to other inventors, and one tells him, "If you don't fight, the rest of us don't stand a chance."
Phyllis has a different take on Bob's crusade—though she supports him as much as she can throughout much of the movie. She loves her husband and loves her kids, but she understands that one's self-identity shouldn't be wrapped up in any one invention—no matter how cool that invention may be. When Bob loses it, it's Phyllis who picks up the pieces and, eventually, encourages Bob to let go of his anger and refocus on his family. But he can't, and she eventually leaves him—telling him almost as she walks out the door that she still loves him. That, again, isn't entirely positive, but certainly much can be learned from it.
When we're first introduced to the Kearns family, they're in church. Phyllis and the children sit in the pews while Bob helps collect offerings. When Bob wants to test his intermittent wipers in real-world conditions—wipers in which Ford had already expressed an interest—he and the family pray to God for rain.
"With my luck," Bob quips, "He's a GM man."
We see Bob and Phyllis smooch in a bathroom doorway, and Phyllis tells Bob, "We should make another kid." They also tell a couple over dinner about their unromantic honeymoon, when a champagne cork hit Bob in the eye and necessitated a trip to the hospital. They also mention how they later made up for that lost evening of romance.
Years after Phyllis and Bob split, Bob asks one of his daughters whether Phyllis is dating again. He receives evasive answers.
Bob throws things now and then.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word. About half-a-dozen s-words. Audiences hear abuses of God's name. (Three times it is paired with "d--n.") Jesus' name is misused four or five times. "H---" and "a--"are included as milder profanities.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Bob and most of the other adults are shown drinking wine, beer or champagne over dinner. A couple of ancillary characters smoke. Bob takes a great deal of medication—presumably an antipsychotic drug—following his mental breakdown.
Other Negative Elements
It's not pretty watching Bob break down. He steals an intermittent windshield wiper from someone's car. He yells at one of his college students who was trying to help him—accusing him of working for one of those dastardly car manufacturers.
The thing about rain on a windshield, Bob Kearns would say, is that it obscures your vision. Even gentle rain makes it impossible to see clearly. Turn off the wipers, and you can't see at all. Turn them on high, and the wipers start to squeak.
Bob's solution was his intermittent wipers, which he wanted to call the "Kearns Blinking Eye" because the wipers worked like the human eyelid.
Drizzle drizzle swish. Drizzle drizzle swish.
But for all the ingenuity of that invention, Bob—at least the Bob presented in Flash of Genius—could never quite master the same technique in the rest of his life. When the rain started to fall, Bob couldn't see clearly. And when he turned his internal wipers on, they kept squealing.
Flash of Genius, a PG-13 biopic that's hurt most by the profanity it includes, doesn't overtly say whether Bob's lifetime could've been better spent. By the time the credits roll, he's reconciled with his children, all of whom take an interest in his legal fights. A jury's awarded him more than $10 million, acknowledging him as the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper. We see indications that he's ready to give up—or at least tone down—his crusade, and Phyllis tells him that he's gotten everything he wanted.
Not quite, Bob replies. She smiles and walks away.
In real life, Kearns' crusades went on. He sued a total of 26 car manufacturers, according to The Washington Post. Most of the suits were dismissed when a weary Kearns couldn't keep up with the legal system's filing deadlines. He burned through five law firms. Most of the $30 million he did collect went to legal expenses, it's said, and Bob largely supported himself via disability checks and trading foreign currencies, continuing to assail his deep-pocketed opponents until his windshield-wiper patents expired.
"I've spent a lifetime on this," Kearns told Regardie's magazine in 1990. "This case isn't just a trial. It's about the meaning of Bob Kearns' life."
In the film—on the verge of what he thinks will be a life-changing breakthrough—Bob wonders what it is that makes someone successful. Is it talent? Luck? Timing? Phyllis smiles and looks at her six children playing in the front yard—healthy, happy. "I look at you," Phyllis says, "I look at us and I think, 'You're a success, you know?'"
Bob pauses, then goes on, as if he didn't hear. As if he didn't see.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Greg Kinnear as Bob Kearns; Lauren Graham as Phyllis Kearns; Jake Abel as Dennis Kearns; Dermot Mulroney as Gil Privick; Alan Alda as Gregory Lawson
Marc Abraham ( )