Dir. Mark Abraham. US. 2007. 119 mins
Marc Abraham’s debut feature about an inventor battling the Ford Motor Company, which steals and markets his window-wiper invention, puts new mileage on the David-Goliath model. Sentimental but remarkably compelling, the saga of a little man’s victory over a corporate giant will ensure that you’ll never see your windshield wipers the same way.
Selling a period movie about window-wiper technology with no major names in the cast besides Ford is this film’s challenge. One niche US market could be the broad public: fans of business journalism and readers of the New Yorker - where an exhaustive article on the Kearns ordeal that inspired the film appeared. Yet the minutiae of US patent law and the motivationally optimistic tone could turn off foreign audiences, although the global mood is ripe for attacking anything big and institutional from America.
Quirky, likeable family man Robert Kearns (Kinnear), who teaches engineering at a local Detroit college, decides that window wipers should operate like the human eye, which blinks from time to time. He creates just that in his basement, and with partner Dermot Mulroney takes it to Ford executives, who request a sample unit, then suddenly back out of the deal only to offer the same technology on new Mustangs.
A decades-long fight follows, taking Kearns through litigation hell and ending his marriage. Working with his children as a legal staff and acting as his own lawyer after his unctuous attorney (Alan Alda) bails out, the intrepid inventor turns down a series of huge cash offers and finally triumphs, but at a heavy emotional price.
Abraham, who produced Dawn of the Dead and Children of Men, directs Kearns’s quest as a Capra-esque quixotic mission, leaving obligatory courtroom duelling until the end. The momentum of that story and a devastating portrait of corporate stonewalling hold your attention, despite some hokey Americana.
The film has a generic mainstream Hollywood look to go with its earnest tone (complete with a grandiloquently ominous score by Aaron Zigman), although production designer Hugo Lucyzc-Wyhowski recreates 1960’s Detroit vividly as a cozy company town that turns ruthless and arrogant.
Screenwriter Philip Railsback’s candid depiction of a US corporation when challenged sets this film apart. Ford isn’t poisoning its employees (as in Silkwood) or stalking a whistleblower (as in The Insider), but no recent feature from a US studio has attacked corporate intransigence so strongly and accused the firm by name so frequently. Ford in this movie is anything but a product placement.
Greg Kinnear plays the battling inventor in the standard Jimmy Stewart mould with Lauren Graham as the long-suffering wife who finally quits. Darkening the picture to great effect are Alan Alda as the slimy lawyer, Mulroney as his partner who turns coward, and Tim Kelleher as Ford’s shifty, corporate trouble-shooter who is dumbstruck when he meets a man who won’t be bought off.
J. Miles Dale
Thomas A. Bliss
Jon Taylor, Chris Minkler