Life and art did that thing they do as I drove through an Oregon rainstorm to the cineplex, mindful that my disc brakes and windshield wiper directly figure into this Smackdown! “Flash of Genius” tells the true story of Robert Kearns, the little guy taking on Big Auto. It’s a fight that cost him 12 years and exacted a fearful price. Every driver every rainy day is safer because of Kearns. Audiences may think they’ve been down this road before and why not: Twenty years ago, Director Francis Ford Coppola test drove very similar elements in “Tucker: The Man and His Dream.” Elements of that dream keep us safe behind the wheel today. Underdogs biting back — which movie tells that story best?
Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear) was an engineering professor in Detroit who wondered one rainy day: why can’t a windshield wiper work as well as an eye lid — not continuously, but when needed? His tinkering led to the development of the intermittent windshield wiper used on 150 million vehicles the past 40 years. The pausing wiper was that better mousetrap and Ford — after failing for years to create a similar device — simply drove off with it. Kearns wanted to produce the intermittent wiper, and just as importantly, he wanted the public recognition for inventing it. “Flash of Genius” retells Kearns’ efforts to seek justice. It became a crusade that tore his family apart, had him institutionalized for a time, and left Kearns representing himself in court against the Ford Motor Company. His opponent had money, time and inertia on its side. The trial went to the jury after 12 years, and if you remember “Rocky” you can guess how Kearns -vs- Ford came out.
The Defending Champion
Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges) was a charmer whose big dream took shape after World War II: A family car that combined safety, size and power. His Tucker ’48 featured a padded dash, seat belts, disc brakes, safety glass, rear engine and headlights that pivot in the direction of the turn. Tucker barnstormed the country and used his one working model to raise production money. He even met with Howard Hughes and acquired an empty factory building in Chicago. By then, Tucker became the enemy of Big Auto. He lost the factory and prosecutors said he stole the start-up money. The story, from Arnold Schulman and David Seidler, demonstrates that a good idea often survives the dreamer.
Both have strong positives and undeniable minuses. The main characters and their families are drawn sketchily and there’s too little explanation of the self-absorption that consumes Robert Kearns and Preston Tucker. Without that, both movies treat the real drama of these real people as melodrama.
Still, there’s plenty to enjoy. Greg Kinnear nicely loses many of the mannerisms we associate with the actor and the man. In fact, “Genius” is Kinnear’s second good screen performance this year. Lauren Graham breathes substance into the thinly-written role of Kearns’ wife, Phyllis. So do Alan Alda as one of his attorneys, and Dermot Mulroney. Mitch Pileggi is a believably unsavory Ford executive. Philip Railsback wrote the screenplay.
Francis Ford Coppola once envisioned “Tucker” as a musical, which may explain the bright and brassy tone of the material. It doesn’t always feel right, and there’s not always much for Joan Allen and Frederic Forrest to do. Mostly this is a two man show, with Bridges playing off business partner Abe Karatz (Martin Landau).
“Tucker” displays the exuberance that typified Coppola’s work in the 1980s: Beautifully filmed and well staged with music and costuming that accurately reflect the times during which the action takes place. The film showed off nearly all 51 Tucker automobiles ever made.
Two movies..two men fighting for a dream. Which one reaches the checkered flag first? Read on.
These films are well-made — especially “Tucker” — but they suffer the problems common to biopix: Events are compressed, time is shifted and characters are combined for dramatic purposes. In the process, some human dimension is sacrificed.
Which leaves us to measure these movies as entertainment pieces, not documentaries. “Flash of Genius” tells an important story that touches our lives outside the theater. Greg Kinnear might even snare an award nomination. The film trails off from there: Marc Abraham’s direction is workmanlike but the script shortchanges our understanding of Robert Kearns’ obsession and his splintered family.
That’s not enough. Coppola faced the same challenge of explaining a man who made the world a little safer. He responded with a movie that satisfies on several levels 20 years later. It’s not “The Godfather” or “‘Apocalypse Now” but the underdog with the hardest bite is our winner, “Tucker: The Man and His Dream.”