TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — For two decades, Robert Kearns waged an obsessive crusade against the auto industry, which he accused of stealing his invention. It destroyed his marriage, brought on a mental breakdown and may have cost him millions.
All because of a dispute over a humble piece of equipment: the intermittent windshield wiper.
Not exactly the stuff of Hollywood drama, you say? Veteran film producer Marc Abraham would beg to differ. He found Kearns’ story so captivating that instead of hiring a director to bring it to the screen, he did the job himself.
“There was something about this story that I felt so personally committed to,” said Abraham, who makes his directorial debut with “Flash of Genius,” starring Greg Kinnear as Kearns. The movie, distributed by Universal Pictures, was shown during the recent Traverse City Film Festival and opens in theaters Oct. 17.
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for average working people,” said Abraham, a Kentucky native who drove a beer truck, waited tables and sold baby pictures door-to-door while trying to break into show business. “Bob wasn’t an ordinary man; he was probably a genius. But as a person, his lifestyle, his family scale, he was just an average guy. So I felt like I understood that.”
Kearns died of cancer in 2005 at age 77, four decades after perfecting the intermittent wiper design in his basement workroom. The one-time engineering instructor at Wayne State University in Detroit received numerous patents for his mechanism.
Inspiration in the blink of an eye
The idea came to him from the irregular blinking of his left eye, which eventually went blind after being struck by a champagne cork on his wedding night.
Kearns took his gadget to Ford Motor Co., which initially showed interest; its engineers had been trying to develop a similar system. But he never reached a licensing agreement with Ford or other automakers, partly because he insisted on forming his own company to manufacture the wipers.
Ford began turning out cars with intermittent wipers in 1969, and competitors soon did likewise. Kearns sued Ford in 1978, claiming patent infringement, and took on Chrysler Corp. four years later.
He ultimately filed lawsuits against 26 companies, including General Motors Corp. Most were tossed out of court, although he won judgments against Ford and Chrysler that ultimately brought him more than $30 million.
Most of the money paid attorneys’ fees and other costs of the legal battle, which in the Chrysler case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices refused to overturn the verdict against the company.
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Kearns insisted his primary motive wasn’t money, but principle — a point his character makes repeatedly in the film. He turned down settlement offers more lucrative than what he won from juries. To the end, Kearns wanted the automakers to admit they pilfered his design and stop making the wipers so he could do it — a concession he never received.
“What they did was downright wrong,” his character tells jurors in the movie version of the Ford trial, during which Kearns represented himself. “They used another man’s work as their own.”
Kearns had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a psychiatric ward in the 1970s after discovering Mercedes-Benz was using an intermittent wiper with an electric circuit similar to his. A few years later, his wife left him, saying his single-mindedness had driven them apart.
One man battles the system
Abraham, whose credits as a producer include three-time Oscar nominee “Children of Men,” “Air Force One,” “Spy Game” and “The Emperor’s Club,” said it took nine years to make the film — largely because selling the concept to the necessary backers wasn’t easy. The intermittent wiper just wasn’t as sexy as, say, a factory polluting someone’s water and giving children cancer.
“It’s not something that’s going to change humanity,” he said.
Even so, Abraham added, the themes of putting principle before expediency and the courageous loner battling the system are time-honored winners in literature and the cinema.
“Whether you are Bob Kearns or ... Ghandi or Martin Luther King, if you go up against the forces, you will pay.”
Despite his sympathy and respect for Kearns, Abraham said he didn’t want “Flash of Genius” to caricature him as a spotless, larger-than-life hero — or Ford as an evil, thieving corporation. The truth, he said, is more nuanced.
Like his on-screen character, the real Kearns could be maddeningly stubborn and even paranoid. When Abraham first telephoned to propose the film after reading about the case in a New Yorker magazine article, Kearns suspected he might be a Ford spy.
“You think to yourself, ‘What’s wrong with this guy?”’ Abraham said. “He’s an addict in some ways. He wants to give it up, but he can’t.”
Ford not a simple villain
Meanwhile, Ford insiders are portrayed as acting more out of frustration with Kearns’ quirkiness and the need to meet corporate deadlines than a blatant intent to defraud.
“I think they had a leg to stand on, in a certain way,” Abraham said. “I think they thought, ‘We would have come up with this anyway, based on the amount of time and energy and research and people we had on it.’
“But I don’t think they had come up with it yet. And what Bob Kearns came up with — whether or not it was the most revolutionary idea anyone ever had — was Bob’s idea. They were denying him his dignity.”
Other characters are shown with strengths and weaknesses, including Kearns’ wife Phyllis (Lauren Graham), a business partner who eventually deserts him, (Dermot Mulroney), and Kearns’ attorney (Alan Alda).
Despite its warts-and-all depiction, Abraham said he believes Kearns would have liked “Flash of Genius” and wishes he had lived long enough to see it.
Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings The inventor’s son, Dennis Kearns, who helped his father prepare for the Ford trial, gave the film a thumbs-up.
“It’s a huge victory,” said Kearns, 53, of Waterford, Mich. “It shows that there is justice in the world, that you can’t steal something and get away with it.”
Ford and Chrysler spokesmen said they hadn’t seen the film and could not comment.
“We’re not going to reopen the case,” said Wes Sherwood of Ford. “We’re clearly focused on moving Ford forward and tomorrow’s innovations.”
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