TORONTO (Reuters) - “Flash of Genius” may not be the sexiest film to debut this fall, but its true tale of the inventor of intermittent windshield wipers poses a timely question of values and ethics in the current economic crisis.
If a major, profit-oriented corporation offered you millions of dollars for your invention, but declined to give you credit for the idea, would you take the money and run?
“Flash of Genius,” which premiered at the Toronto film festival earlier this month and hits theaters on Friday, tells of university professor Robert Kearns, who fought the Detroit automakers that he claimed tried to steal his invention.
Kearns, portrayed by Greg Kinnear in the film, paid dearly for his legal battle. His wife left him, and he was separated from his six kids. He lost his job and was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. Kearns died in 2005.
He never gave up over some 12 years, which in many movies would make Kearns a hero, but his stubborn mind-set in the face of losing everything important in his life also makes him unlikable at times.
Kinnear and writer/director Marc Abraham found his dual nature interesting to study in the film.
“To me, I’ve never been someone who thinks black and white in life, I’ve never found that to be true,” Abraham said.
“And it’s very, very, very rare that moments come with such clarity that you’re right and everybody else is wrong.”
Kinnear agreed. “We live in a world of compromise (but) every popular game show is about take the frickin’ money,’” he said.
In 1963, Kearns dreamed up the idea for the intermittent wipers in his basement — inspired by the simple ability of a blinking eye — that would swipe away water in a light rain instead of the heavy downpours for which wipers were made.
For years, automakers worked with him to perfect the machine, but then abandoned him to pursue the idea on their own, sparking the decades-long saga covered in the film.
Kearns is offered money — at one time, $30 million by the Ford Motor Co. — to sign away the rights to his invention, but he would not get credit. He decides, instead, that values of truth and honesty are worth fighting for.
Even though Kearns can seem irrationally obsessed as he loses his grip on his life and loved ones, the filmmakers nevertheless grew fond of the character.
“I’ve always found myself wanting the best for him. I wanted him to find satisfaction,” Kinnear said.
Abraham said he tried to shop his script around Hollywood for years, but none of the major studios would back him until Universal Pictures came forward.
“You tell studios you’re going to make a movie about a guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper — not a lot of bites,” Kinnear said.
Indeed, money is often considered to have greater sex appeal in the movies. What film fan will forget Gordon Gekko’s famous “greed is good” speech from 1987’s “Wall Street”?
But in fall 2008, with the financial markets reeling in bank failures and the U.S. government considering a taxpayer bailout plan, it just may be that truth and justice will win the day at theater box offices for “Flash of Genius.”
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte