"Flash of Genius" Hits Theaters Next Week; Ford Grabs onto "Oh Shit! Handle"

When I was a kid, my mom drove a Bronco II Ford SUV. This SUV, like most cars nowadays, had interior handles for each passenger, just above the door windows, to hang onto if the driver were to take a hard turn, or drive into a scary situation. My dad used to lovingly call these “Oh Shit! Handles.”

My dad worked for Ford for 34 years, and like many of our parents (and many of us!) we rely on the auto industry for our well-being and livelihood, whether working directly for one of The Big Three, an engineering firm that supports The Big Three (or Toyota or Honda), or one of the many area advertising agencies that promotes the auto industry.

The Big Three have certainly made lots of mistakes and miscalculations, and their past leadership is very much to blame for the sorry state the industry finds itself in today. And certainly, the industry deserved the harsh criticism of the independent filmmakers who produced Who Killed the Electric Car? and Roger and Me, films that justifiably showed how greedy power players and corporate executives have continued to influence the auto industry away from innovation and working 21st-century business models and into the same old ways of doing things.

But while Who Killed the Electric Car? and Roger and Me were important protests against bad auto-industry practices and the executive greed that spawned these practices, there’s a new Hollywood movie coming to theaters that threatens to tarnish the name of our American auto makers without any seeming purpose but to sell tickets at the box office.

In “Flash of Genius,” Greg Kinnear stars as Wayne State professor Robert Kearns, who, in the 1970s, invents the intermittent windshield wiper, a much sought-after technological advance for the auto industry at the time. Instead of giving the man credit, the auto industry (Ford, in particular, is named as the main culprit) steals the invention and denies the good professor–who’s been working hard just to keep his family fed–any monetary reward or credit for the invention. Kearns enters into an intense and long legal battle against Ford, which he wins after years of fighting in the courts. “Flash of Genius” is one of those feel-good movies about how the little guy, with lots of grit, determination, and an unquenchable thirst for justice, is able to win out against the powers that be.

Inspiring stuff. Unless, of course, you live in Michigan, and you can feel in your gut how much this movie will villanize our auto industry in the mind of the American consumer.

Ford is an easy target here–a sitting, and very wounded corporate duck–and I can’t think that this movie will do anything but make people less likely to buy American cars. The movie won’t make Ford any better. It won’t force protests that will make Ford correct bad practices or create greener vehicles–the market is already making that happen. No, the movie will just turn people even more against Ford, solidifying the automaker as a corporate Mr. Potter in consumers’ minds, working only toward keeping all of the George Baileys of this world down and out.

Granted, “Flash of Genius” is based on a true story, and a story that deserves telling. And I’m not trying to stick up for Ford’s past actions. I just question the timing and the intent of this film. Things are already bad enough around here due to the mismanagement of the auto industry over the years. But when the industry (and Michigan) is at its lowest, does it really make sense to kick us when we’re already down? Even though the story is about the industry exploiting one of our own, it’s the kind of PR nightmare that the transitioning American auto companies don’t need.

And let’s not kid ourselves that any other industry could possibly replace the automobile industry if it were to go down. Governor Granholm’s plans to make Michigan a manufacturing hub for green technologies are certainly on the right track for our future economic prosperity, but they could never fill in the hole that a completely broken auto industry would leave.

So grab onto the “Oh Shit! Handles” everybody, because “Flash of Genius” is going to make this recovery an even bumpier ride for the auto industry, and the city and state that rely on it.

More background from The Free Press, and here’s the trailer:


3 Comments so far

  1. winjer on September 29th, 2008 @ 6:55 am

    I don’t think there will ever be a good time to tell this story. Ford, especially, has shown itself to be reluctant to manufacture cars that are less wasteful and times are just going to get tougher.

    And let’s not kid ourselves that any other industry could possibly replace the automobile industry if it were to go down.

    This is something that bothers me about people’s mindset in Michigan. No one can think beyond the auto industry or life without cars. How much worse does it have to get for people to wake up?

  2. Scotter (det_scott) on September 29th, 2008 @ 9:25 am

    I totally agree with you that there will probably never be a good time to tell this story. However, I don’t think it’s a mindset issue as much as it’s an issue about all of the business that is built upon the auto industry. It’s one of the reasons I mentioned not only the manufacturing of cars, but the engineering firms and advertising firms and credit firms that rely mostly on the business of the auto industry.

    I sincerely hope that Granholm’s plan to make Michigan a green manufacturing hub works, but there will be stiff competition from other states, and it’s likely that the boost would not sufficiently fill the auto industry gap.

  3. 1429white on October 1st, 2008 @ 12:22 pm

    There is one basic error in the movie. Ford did not steal Kearns’ invention. Ford would have had an intermittent windshield wiper even if Kearns had never visited Ford. There were many intermittent wiper systems prior to Kearns’ invention. Ford was in the process of developing its own wiper system prior to Kearns visit to Ford. Kearns had a very skilled patent attornery who was able to obtain very broad patent claims that exceeded Kearns’ actual contribution based upon information that Kearns relayed back to his attorney regarding Ford’s work. Nevertheless, the jury in the Ford v. Kearns trial found that the Kearns’ patents were infringed. It award Kearns $5 million which was increase by $5 million for the interest on the damages award. The jury found that Ford was not a willful infringer; that is, Ford did not steal Kearns’ invention.

    Interestingly, Kearns attempted to be his own attorney (after hiring and firing 3 different law firm that represented him in suits against Ford and Chrysler) in suits against GM and foreign auto makers. As a results, he lost those subsequent cases.

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