Thursday, October 2, 2008

Jason watches "Flash of Genius"

With thanks to a friend for getting me into this sneak preview/press screening.

You might not think a movie about the invention of the intermittent windshield wiper and the ensuing 12 year patent litigation would be that interesting, but Greg Kinnear deserves tons of credit for making the central character--Dr. Robert Kearns--so compelling. Dr. Kearns was a professor of electrical engineering, living in Detroit in the 60's. The invention itself is a little perfunctory. After a bit of a buildup, it works the first time. He teams up with some friends in the auto parts business, and is soon demonstrating his invention to Ford. They like the idea, buy he wants to manufacture it himself. They string him along, then suddenly want out (shortly after he gives them a working unit to send to regulators in Washington, D.C.). The next year, Ford introduces intermittent windshield wipers on their cars. He tries to fight, fails, and has a little nervous breakdown. He comes back, tries to move on with his life, but that fight is still there. He gets a lawyer (Alan Alda, in a brief role), that gets him a settlement offer of $250K (which he thinks he can bump up to $400K). He declines, he goes it alone, and the fight consumes him as his children grow up and his wife leaves him. It's based on a true story, so if you've done your research there's no real surprise at the end. Even representing himself, after 12 years he finally wins. I will say two things--first, the scene of him interviewing himself on the stand is pure comedy gold that wouldn't have been so brilliant if Kinnear hadn't played it so straight (watch it, and then imagine Jim Carrey playing it and realize how silly and slapstick it could've been). Second, there's a distinct bittersweet quality to his victory--maybe even more bitter than sweet. The fight had cost him his marriage, most of his 6 children's childhoods, and for a time his mental health. As an engineer (okay, physicist. The point is, as a technical weenie), I appreciate his accomplishment and how it proved patents mean something (in the end, he was doing it more for that than for the money), but if I were in the same position I'd have bailed out at $400K. If not then, certainly near the end when Ford offered $30 million.

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