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'Flash of Genius' Takes a Swipe at Ford

October 2, 2008 |  6:04 pm

Who killed the intermittent windshield wiper?

Nobody, actually. But “Flash of Genius,” a new movie from Universal opening Friday, tells the story of Robert Kearns, who claimed to have come up with the idea for off-again, on-again wipers — and then spent much of his life suing the automakers he accused of ripping off his idea.

It’s a classic Hollywood David vs. Goliath story. Kearns, played by Greg Kinnear, below, was a lowly engineering instructor who came up with a design for an off-again, on-again windshield wiper while tinkering in his basement workshop in the early 1960s.

Efforts to sell his patented invention to Ford came to naught and the automaker, which had been working on its own designs, began selling cars equipped with intermittent wipers in 1969. Kearns sued Ford in 1978 for $141 million (an amount that eventually rose to $325 million) and went after Chrysler four years later.

After years of litigation, Ford offered to settle the case for $30 million, but Kearns rebuffed the offer. In 1990, a federal jury found that Ford had unintentionally infringed on Kearns’ patent and awarded the inventor $10 million.

Kearns, who eventually filed lawsuits against 26 companies, also got a big chunk of money out of Chrysler. He died in 2005.

Up to Speed hasn’t seen the film yet (we opted for a screening of this weekend’s other big release, “Beverly Hills Chihuahua”). But based on the previews and several of the reviews, Ford doesn’t exactly come off as a model of corporate rectitude. (Indeed, the movie's depiction of the automaker's behavior launched Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times on a rant against Wall Street, the Bush administration and general capitalist chicanery that reads more like an op-ed piece than a film review.)

Director Marc Abraham has said in interviews that he actually sympathized with the automaker a bit in its attempts to deal with Kearns, who by most accounts could be quirky and hard to handle. But Abraham also said he thinks his hero did indeed come up with the idea on his own and Ford was “denying him his dignity.”

Whether Ford comes off as badly as General Motors did in the 2006 documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” remains to be seen. A big-screen battle over wiper settings will certainly carry less of a punch in rain-starved Southern California, where windshield wipers are of considerably less interest than alleged efforts to crush the development of environmentally friendly vehicles. (The weather may actually be working in favor of “Flash of Genius” though; showers are in the forecast for Saturday.)

The folks at Blue Oval HQ, looking to get out ahead of the story, have posted a timeline on their website that has one of their engineers demonstrating an intermittent-wiper system in 1959, four years before Kearns came up with his design.

Beyond those claims, Ford said it “sees no value in rehashing the history of a legal case that was resolved in court almost 20 years ago, when a jury ruled that Ford did not willfully violate Mr. Kearns’ patent.”

Critics have found the film intermittently entertaining. About 70% of the reviews have been positive, according to RottenTomatoes.com  -- a good-but-not-great critical endorsement.

Paul Dergarabedian of Media by Numbers thinks the movie, which is opening in about 1,000 theaters, could do well with older audiences, who tend to read reviews, as well as moviegoers looking for a film that doesn’t feature talking dogs.

-- Martin Zimmerman

Photos from "Flash of Genius" from Universal Pictures