Americans do love our underdog stories and this one has the ingredients. There’s a David — an engineering professor named Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear), who had a “flash of genius” and invented a gadget that all the geniuses in Detroit had been trying to figure out — an intermittent windshield-wiper to provide better clarity of vision when driving in the rain. Jackpot, right? No, there’s also a Goliath, and no giant is bigger and no overdog is overdoggier than the Detroit auto industry, circa 1960’s. And it really happened. Kearns sued Ford Motor Company for stealing his idea and pursued them for decades, representing himself in court. When they offered him millions of dollars but refused to give him credit for the invention, he turned them down. Integrity and pride, those are important elements of the underdog story, too.
Director Mark Abraham gives the film a gritty authenticity, evoking the era without overdoing it. And he gives the story its grittiness, too, showing us the price Kearns and his family pay for his dedication and stubbornness. Lauren Graham is a pleasure as Kearns’ wife. No one on screen today does a better job of portraying an intelligent, warm, sexiness. Kinnear shows us Kearns’ honesty, stubbornness, pride, and vulnerability. The courtroom scenes are exceptionally well done.
If there’s a fine line between genius and insanity, there’s an even finer one between genius and obsession. This film is a thoughtful, sympathetic, but clear-eyed portrayal of what Kearns gained but also what he lost.