It's been said that every cup of coffee carries within it the whole grim tale of Western imperialism. Now comes “Flash of Genius,” with its testimony that even the humble intermittent windshield wiper arrived on our cars burdened by a history of broken dreams and corporate vice.
Based on a true story, the film revolves around an inventor whose minor engineering marvel serves as his ticket to heartache and endless litigation. At first glance, this may seem like just another fable of a naA_f wandering cluelessly into a labyrinth of industrial skullduggery. But strong performances and a protagonist more compromised and imperfect — that is, more human — than is usual in movies of this kind make “Flash of Genius” a thoughtful inquiry into the doubtful benefits of pursuing one's ideals “to the end of the line,” as they say in “Double Indemnity.”
When we first meet him early in the 1960s, Detroit engineering professor Bob Kearns (Greg Kinnear) warns the slide-rule-toting geeks in his class that while engineers created the artificial heart valve, they also built the crematoriums at Auschwitz. He's thoroughly steeped in the moral earnestness and absolutism of the Cold War at its height, but he also has a zestful, even slightly zany streak of homespun optimism.
So when after a little fiddling in his basement he discovers how to make windshield wipers pause between sweeps — the correct technical term for the pause, we learn, is “the dwell” — he drives across town to show his invention to the boys at Ford, in full expectation of cashing in on his piece of the American dream. “Maybe this will get you where you want to be,” observes his wife (Lauren Graham), hinting that a nagging dissatisfaction is at the bottom of her husband's need to succeed.
After a time we are shocked — shocked! — to learn that Ford appears to have helped itself to Kearns's design without actually paying for it. When the aggrieved egghead decides to take on Goliath, we feel ourselves drifting into familiar territory, as if the movie aimed at nothing higher than the tranquilizing comfort derived from oatmeal on a winter's morning, locked-in mortgage rates, or Ron Howard.
Fortunately, the script by Philip Railsback, based on a 1993 New Yorker article, has other things in mind. When Kearns is subjected to the pressures of litigation with a mammoth corporation, all the virtues that had served him so well through life — his diligence, rectitude and high capacities — lead him to put everything on the line, even his family, in his quest for public vindication. As it sometimes does in real life, the line between unflinching commitment and neurosis starts to blur.
At the core of the film we find a superb pair of scenes featuring Alan Alda as Gregory Lawson, a high-powered attorney cursed with a Don Quixote for a client. Alda, who still exudes a beguiling air of sulfur from his turn as a crooked senator in “The Aviator,” calmly lays out for Kearns the perils of doing battle with an entity that “doesn't know the meaning of years.” When the idealist inventor balks at an appreciable settlement offer from Ford, Lawson, dumbfounded, launches into a chilling but quite compelling speech about “how justice is dispensed in this country”: “You get a check.” These scenes ought to be compulsory viewing for anyone contemplating legal action against a big company or other immortal.
Nothing else in the picture quite comes up to the measured intensity of the exchanges between Alda and Kinnear, who, while not quite equaling Alda's masterful portrayal of equivocal worldliness, turns in a consistently convincing performance, adding to his gallery of characters on the wrong side of success, like the one he played in “Little Miss Sunshine.” The film is also well-served by Lauren Graham, who brings a simple openness and emotional honesty to the role of Kearns's devoted, yet less unyielding, wife.
Everyone in “Flash of Genius” but the corporate villains knows that justice is good. But only Kearns doesn't seem to realize that there are lots of other good things, too — such as family, youth and tranquility — and that it's not at all clear that justice should trump any or all of these. Does society need uncompromising fighters like Kearns? Perhaps. But “Flash of Genius” may make the more morally limber among us thankful for our impurities. (PG-13) 119 min. S