Theoretically, the story of Robert Kearns’ crusade against Big Auto is a fascinating one, and ripe for movie treatment: The college engineering professor invented the intermittent windshield-wiper system in his basement, pitched it to Ford and was then ripped off by the monolithic automaker, which introduced its own version of the system without crediting Kearns. Kearns then spent years in a David-vs.-Goliath legal battle against the company to achieve the recognition he felt he deserved.
Flash of Genius takes Kearns’ complicated, circuitous story and boils it down to a connect-the-dots Hollywood tale, so on-the-nose that it has Kearns giving his engineering class a lecture on ethics as one of the first scenes in the movie. Kinnear is always likeable, and he gives a sympathetic portrayal of Kearns, but the movie bounces so quickly from point to point along a protracted timeline that Kinnear is almost never able to establish anything more than a surface personality.
Veteran producer Abraham makes his directorial debut in an entirely anonymous fashion, prizing efficiency over complexity and building to an obvious, crowd-pleasing conclusion. He reduces Kearns’ personal relationships to the most basic archetypes, focusing on how Kearns’ years-long quest consumed him, ultimately alienating him from his wife (Graham) and oldest son. This problem gets as neat a wrap-up as does Kearns’ fight with the auto industry, although neither resolved nearly as conveniently as the movie suggests. But streamlining both facts and narrative is the priority here, and in the process the theoretically fascinating real-life story becomes just another product of the studio assembly line.