Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges) was a man with a dream, which was that after the Second World War had ended he wanted to break away from the so-called "Big Three" main car manufacturers and set up shop on his own, with an innovative new design. He had already made a name for himself as an inventor, desgining a super-fast armoured car for use in battle, but as a pointer of things to come it had been turned down by the military, ironically for being too fast. He was an eternal optimist, however, and felt sure that he could smash the monopoly of big business with a car that was safer and more efficient than anything ever to roll off the production line...
When Tucker: The Man and His Dream was released, many observed the connections between the real life inventor and the producer-director of this film, Francis Ford Coppola, as if he had seen so much in the character of his subject that he wished to support his own self-image of a powerful dreamer who had tried to buck the system and been crushed by it. After all, Coppola's American Zoetrope studios, which he had set up as a rival to the bigger Hollywood players, had suffered its fair share of disasters, and had never taken its place alongside the majors as Coppola had envisaged happening.
But the truth was that the filmmaker had wanted to make the Tucker story from at least the start of the seventies, well before Zoetrope's troubles, and the result in 1988 was less a tribute to himself and more a tribute to the oldtime inspirational movies that the likes of Frank Capra had made back around the era that Preston Tucker was operating - Bridges even got a Mr Smith Goes to Washington-style speech at the end just when things are looking their most desperate for him. As the film starts, you're well aware that the protagonist's schemes are not going to succeed, which in effect lulls you into a false sense of security, knowing you're going to watch this man with the sunny disposition have the good cheer knocked out of him.
And yet, as the title sequence sets it out, you could have been watching a movie designed by Tucker himself, or at least his public relations department, as in a lightly self-aware fashion the story unfolds as a tribute to the American Dream, just like in traditional Hollywood conventions. Bridges never allows us to see Tucker in weakness, as even when he loses his temper he still appears in control, and it's a performance that would not have shamed James Stewart in his heyday, except that Coppola veers too close to corny in his efforts to recreate the past. One thing that does come across as being of its decade - the eighties - is that reaction to the idea of big corporations running everything and not caring about the little guy, which is anathema to the likes of Tucker who sees himself as one of those little guys.
You can understand why his team and his family would be so loyal to the innovator, so after a while a sense of injustice starts brewing as the large companies in Detroit make moves to nip the plans in the bud. No sooner has Tucker got his dreams off the ground, and it takes a lot of work as he has to build his prototype from junkyard car parts, than his competitors are spying on him, planting critical, biased reports in the press, and even worse, placing doublecrossing members into Tucker's board of directors thanks to their government influence. They tell him his design will never be a success, and all because he wanted to stop so many deaths in car crashes and make road travel easier financially for the common man: now his engine in the back is out of the question, seatbelts supposedly make the public believe the vehicle isn't safe, and he can't even get the colour he wants. By the time Tucker's trial for fraud is underway, what started as a handsomely depicted throwback has grown unexpectedly gripping, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Well, sort of. Music by Joe Jackson.