Watching Francis Ford Coppola’s 1988 film, Tucker: The Man And His Dream, was like watching a bit better version of the more recent Greg Kinnear film, Flash Of Genius. The main difference is that the later film was about how corporate America crushed a man who had an invention to improve a small part of the standard automobile, in the 1960s, whereas Tucker: The Man And His Dream is about how corporate America crushed a man whose invention was a better whole automobile. But, while the Coppola film is better than its latter day cinematic soulmate, it’s still nowhere near a great film, for it lacks a grand idea, and it delves into nothing particularly deep; not even the tried and true ‘politics is a form of organized crime’ gambit.
That said, it is a likeable film, well made- albeit a bit too long at 110 minutes, well acted, but utterly void of any significance, save for illuminating one of the glaring flaws in America’s mythic sense of itself. It follows a few years in the life of Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges) an inventor and entrepreneur, who seeks to make better and safer cars than what was being produced in the 1940s by the Big Three automakers in Detroit (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler). He worked for years in all parts of the industry and is now wanting to break out on his own, in a company run in his family barn, along with his wife Vera (Joan Allen), and son, Preston Tucker Jr. (Christian Slater). The film opens as a 1940s promotional style film, and employs many old World War Two era visual tricks (especially during phone conversations) to try and sell itself as a 1940s film. The film spans 1945 through 1948, and follows the machinations of the Big Three, and their bought and paid for Senatorial stooge, Senator Homer Ferguson (Lloyd Bridges), who end up trying Tucker for SEC violations that are trumped up, in order to force the demise of his prototype car, the Tucker Torpedo. Backing Tucker is an ex-con financier from New York, named Abe Karatz (Martin Landau), a bold young designer, Alex Tremulis (Elias Koteas), and a loyal cadre of friends and employees.
The film follows Tucker on a tour of the US, to sell his car, a bizarre meeting with the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes (Dean Stockwell), the pitfalls of developing his car, and the subsequent trial, and its aftermath, in which the government conspired to kill competition in the auto business, despite Tucker’s meeting his contractual obligation to produce at least 50 autos by a certain date. He does, but the government seizes his property anyway. The film certainly has a Frank Capran flair, and even ends with a very Capran-like speech to the jury, by Tucker. But, in true Hollywood fashion, Tucker wins the case, but loses all else. And it’s this sort of banality which infects many other aspects of the film’s screenplay, and keep it from something of depth. The film ends with Tucker giving rides in his autos to members of the jury, and a postscript that states Tucker died a few years later of lung cancer.
One of the basic problems with the script is that there is no character development. Within minutes we are shown the travails of a bunch of characters we know nothing about, and whose situation has no real correlation to everyday reality. We then get no development from this start. Tucker is a cipher, and so are all about him. And no amount of visual wizardry can change that fact. But, Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography and Joe Jackson’s film score do their best, and the film is, on a sensual level, first rate; although some scenes of mountains in the background give away the fact that the film was shot in California, not Michigan.
The DVD is put out by Paramount, in a 2.20:1 aspect ratio. There are a number of good extra features. First there is an audio commentary for the film. Usually, Coppola commentaries are amongst the best in the business, but this one is not. It lacks the incisiveness and power of the commentaries Coppola’s done for The Godfather films, and it also lacks the almost free form performance that he gives on the commentaries for Apocalypse Now and The Conversation. Usually, the commentaries are deep and informative, scene specific and wide ranging. This one seems phoned in. There are long silences, and merely perfunctory comments; which seem to belie that Coppola is likely unsatisfied with the end result. In fact, he does hint at this a few times, but the way he comments says far more than anything direct. There is a patchwork behind the scenes ‘documentary’ on the film, called Under The Hood: Making Tucker. Mostly it’s interviews with the people involved with the production. Then there is a 1948 promotional film from the actual Tucker corporation. It runs 15 minutes, and also comes with commentary by Coppola, who seems more enthused by this short film than his own; which may be true since he was captivated, as a boy, by the original car; an impetus which spurred him to pursue the film over the decades.
Tucker: The Man And His Dream is a good solid film, but, as Coppola himself seems to realize (in his commentary), it’s nothing special. Its stylized realism is appealing, but ultimately an empty appeal to nothing of substance. That’s too bad, because throughout the film I was thinking that there is gold to be mined in the old adage that not all who think that others are out to get them are crazy. Trust me, I know. But this theme is not really even touched on in the film, and only glancingly so in the commentary by Coppola, when the filmmaker muses that newer Internet technology likely makes it easier to succeed against the powers that be (no quite so, Francis!). Nonetheless, the cumulative positives slightly outweigh the negatives, and even if they did not, the film’s historical focus deserves viewing. Just, keep expectations in line (unlike Tucker) and you will likely find something of benefit, whether or not Coppola intended it or not.