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The Small Picture

Director Marc Abraham Approaches Something Almost Universal Through His Very Slice of Life Drama

Director Marc Abraham (left) inspires Greg Kinnear and Lauren Graham.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 10/1/2008

"See that factory over there?," Marc Abraham says, pointing out the window of his fifth-floor suite at the Intercontinental Harbor Court Hotel across the Inner Harbor and toward Sparrows Point in the distance. "We found out they're pouring cyanide into the water. And you know what's happening? All the kids who go to that aquarium over there are getting sick. And we got to fight this."

Tall and lean, Abraham's comfortably casual attire--sneakers, jeans, a white T-shirt, and a dark sport coat--belies both his early years as a sports reporter and his nearly 20 years as veteran movie producer, his diverse résumé including work on 1991's The Commitments and 2006's Children of Men. But he's not actually accusing local industry of malfeasance. No, he's offering the usual scenario for courtroom dramas against corporate entities--you know, the Erin Brockoviches and A Civil Actions and The Insiders.

"The story about a whistleblower, the story about a David vs. Goliath, is normally What's David fighting about," Abraham says. "And while this is a story of David vs. Goliath, it's more than that."

"This" is Abraham's debut as a feature director, Flash of Genius, starring Greg Kinnear as Bob Kearns, the real-life American inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper who takes Ford Motor Co. to court over the unlicensed use of his invention. And Flash is one of the more disarmingly engaging dramas in theaters right now. Kearns' suit against Ford (and eventually Chrysler) occupied 24 years of his life, disrupting his marriage and costing him his mental health. It's a touching, almost tragic narrative, but still, on the surface, it's a movie about the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper that becomes a patent courtroom drama. Who wants to see that?

"I loved the story for that irony--who thinks this is a good idea for a movie?" Abraham says. "And I felt this is a guy who put his whole life on the line, who sacrificed his family, who had six children, who battled beyond what any reasonable person would do, and for what? This thing, it's almost humorous--he invented the intermittent windshield wiper?

"But because his invention and what he fought for are something you can live without--it's not trivial, but it's certainly not the most consequential invention in our lives--you're then forced to consider, well, then, what is he fighting for? And what he's fighting for is a giant idea. He's fighting for his integrity. Somebody's saying to him, `You're not important.'"

It's an admittedly old-fashioned idea, one that can border on schmaltz, but Abraham and Kinnear handle it with subtle confidence. Flash is a skillfully subdued movie, one that doesn't romanticize its underdog or portray a world tidily divided into simplistic goods and evils. Instead, Flash ably thrives on competent storytelling, condensing a 24-year story into the 12-15 years the movie depicts, from the 1960s into the 1970s, grounded in realism without venturing into the stilted vacuum of the period film. Kinnear wears a limited wardrobe ("He's a college professor--he's got two suits, maybe," Abraham says). Cinematographer Dante Spinotti shot the interior scenes in digital video to give the movie the grainy 1970s feel. And an orienting title card never pops up to root the movie in a specific year.

"I felt like the minute you start saying, `1969,' then all of a sudden for me it gets quainter--it just ties the movie to a specific era--and I wanted to deal with the themes," Abraham says. Specifically, he was attracted to Kearns as a familiarly vulnerable, flawed man. "I was drawn to his frailty. I was drawn to his obsession, his addiction. I was drawn to the melancholy of the position he put his family into. I was fascinated by that kind of a character. I had no interest in it being preachy. I had no interest in him being flawless. And I really felt that if I got the right person, that I could tell an important story--at least a story about something."

It's a modest goal, and it's surprisingly refreshing to experience the simple pleasures of such modest filmmaking. "I think that, unfortunately, drama's become a bad word," Abraham says. "And I personally think one of the reasons it's become a bad word is because it's sort of been co-opted by indie dramas--and they're always about the most dysfunctional people in the world. I don't mind that, but not all the time. I wanted to make a drama that captured people but also feels real. I just took [Kearns' story] on the most basic level that this was his work. He was proud of it and it was his and somebody took it. I don't think somebody sat around and said, `How do we screw Bob Kearns?'--it was a business decision. But this story is much more about the human condition to me than it is about being right."

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