Movie Review – Tucker: The Man and His Dream

Tucker: A Man and His Dream (1988)
Written by Arnold Schulman & David Seidler
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

The Tucker automobile had captured Coppola’s mind since childhood. While at UCLA’s film school, the burgeoning director further developed his idea for this biopic. Marlon Brando was approached to star as the lead, then Jack Nicholson, and then Burt Reynolds. Coppola decided he wanted to make it experimental, a modern musical where he would reference Bertolt Brecht and Kabuki performances. His colleague Paul Schrader’s Mishima film inspired him, and Coppola wanted Tucker to be like that. In 1986, George Lucas encouraged Coppola to make his Tucker movie; he thought Tucker was one of the best things the filmmaker had developed in a while. Lucas would produce it, but he convinced the director to back away from the project’s experimental nature. Instead, Coppola would take inspiration from the work of Frank Capra, an exploration of the American Dream and the hope that industrialization brought in the wake of World War II. This would be Coppola’s final production of the 1980s.

Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges) is a Detroit engineer with big ideas. His prototype for an armored car used by Allies in WWII didn’t pan out, but he still has more projects. The “Car of the Future” is the albatross he chases; the Tucker Torpedo will have revolutionary safety features. Disc brakes, seatbelts, a pop-out windshield, and swiveling headlights are the innovations that set Tucker’s car apart from the rest. Tucker hires Alex Tremulis (Elias Koteas), a young designer, and gets financial backing from Abe Karatz (Martin Landau), a New York investor. An old Dodge auto factory is purchased to be the home of The Tucker. However, worries from his board of directors and the jealous machinations of rival car manufacturers put a wrench in Tucker’s plans. He is accused of being unable to produce a single one of his miracle cars, so Tucker sets out to prove his enemies wrong and show that his dream is a reality.

If you notice some parallels between the trials of Preston Tucker and what Coppola dealt with during the 1980s, you would be picking up on the movie’s pretty obvious subtext. Tucker also continues the director’s interest in going back to the decades that formed the American myth. The Outsiders & Rumble Fish look closely at the rise of youth culture, Peggy Sue Got Married provides us with Baby Boomer regret and second-guessing, and finally, Tucker is all about the conflict between monied interests and society’s creative souls. Coppola refuses to accept the sunny & fictionalized version of life in all these pictures. Characters may triumph in the end to one degree or another, but they also have to face harsh realities. 

I was immediately taken aback by how good this film looks. It was released in 1988, but it seems like something from the mid to late 1990s. You can immediately see how despite not appearing to be a significant influence, Coppola actually was shaping the aesthetics of movies to come. I saw the same aesthetics that will pop up in similar period pieces like The Rocketeer or Pleasantville. Light, especially those honeyed sunsets, are presented in such rich golden hues. It helps to emphasize the mythology of the subject matter; this is not the United States as we know it to be, but the Hollywood version of the country post-War. Good people are always good. Bad people are recognizable bad from their introduction. The morality is simple, yet Coppola still finds ways to be nuanced. 

To achieve his creative dream, Tucker must build a world outside the establishment. He won’t shop his designs around to the major manufacturers. In the same way, Coppola was hellbent on constructing American Zoetrope, his own production company, able to make his movies and provide backing to burgeoning filmmakers he admired. Tucker delivers a typically passionate Hollywood speech near the film’s climax as he’s been pilloried in court by people worried they won’t get back their investment. The character talks about how these massive conglomerates make it impossible for dreamers like him to realize their ideas. Resources are hoarded, and anyone who shows they can work outside the system is ruined in the press. Coppola’s warning, via Tucker’s speech, is that if we allow a small number of companies to control any industry, particularly creative ones, we risk losing what makes life worth living. It’s crucial to be jolted out of our routines, to wake up from sleepwalking through life. That can be done when someone encounters something alien to them, be it a car, movie, or anything else a person has made from their ideas. Seeing what can be encourages us to imagine what else our world could look like.

In the Western world, we are watching the twilight of unipolarity. Since World War II, the United States has dominated this sphere of the world. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, we shifted from a bipolar world to a unipolar one. Capitalism was presented as the be-all, end-all structure of reality from which we can never escape. You hear economists talk with religious-like hushed whispers and reverence for the all-seeing eye of The Market. Instead, we need to view these things not through fascistic mysticism but as systems designed and implemented by humans. They are not infallible; they are, in fact, heavily flawed. This is why recessions seem to happen like the changing of the seasons; it’s why the floor buckled the minute COVID-19 forced us to slow down our lives. Capitalism’s immune system response has been to fall back on the incuriosity & personal grievance-fueled politics of austerity and fascism. These are the antithesis of imagination; they encourage the citizenry to shut off their minds, which is quite easily achieved in the propaganda-soaked US of A. 

We live in a profoundly uncreative world. You are told many things made by corporations are good because they might have expanded the cultural representation of the actors, or the dialogue may crib from Zoomerspeak. We are told this is progress and good and fun. But it sure doesn’t feel like it. This doesn’t mean greater diversity among performers and creators is bad. That’s the hollow anti-” woke” argument, an ideology that is simply all the old hatreds dipped in a shiny new coat of paint. Our lives are crying out for true transformation & change. The ways of seeing things that Hollywood models for us are dying, if not already dead. They offer only hollow platitudes and ultimately reinforce pre-existing structures of power. Our world needs more Tuckers and Coppolas and all the different people who make things not because they want to get disgustingly rich (though money is an essential piece of this labor as it is with all work) but because they would die if they couldn’t create. It’s something we all have inside us, but not everyone has those seeds cultivated as they grow up. 

The story of Francis Ford Coppola is one of never losing your love of art, even as life falls around you. He ended up in tens of millions of dollars of debt at the start of the decade. By the end, he’d had to sell his American Zoetrope studio, do a lot of work for hire to pay back his debts, and then lost his eldest son in a tragic accident. I don’t know if I could have kept going, as my anxiety can get to me when I have a minor bump in the road. Coppola’s struggles are so beyond that, and he’s still making movies with his most ambitious still to come. You don’t have to love all his movies or even any of them to still appreciate the dedication. Coppola’s is an artist’s heart. You don’t learn that from only looking at an artist’s best; you discover it when you examine the whole body of work and see how they climb out of a hole. We’ll stop here with Coppola for now, but keep an eye out in 2023 when we sit down to take in his limited but strong output in the 1990s.


One thought on “Movie Review – Tucker: The Man and His Dream”

  1. Pingback: Fall 2022 Digest

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