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Cinematic Pleasures: Tucker, The Man and His Dream

by j.d. lafrance

Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola has always been at odds with the Hollywood studio system. He has spent the majority of his career trying to make movies without their help. He is a genius and an innovator in the area of film but has had to relinquish his dream of independence and submit to the system he despises. This makes him the perfect person to do a film about Preston Tucker, a 1940s automobile designer who dreamed of making cars outside of the established system, only to be defeated by the said system. The parallels between Coppola and this intriguing historical figure are very similar and it is easy to see what attracted the director to a project that celebrated a distinctive vision, innovation, and a passion to create something truly unique. Coppola not only sees these attributes in his subject, but in himself as well. The end result: Tucker, The Man and His Dream (1988), an enthusiastic and entertaining tribute to a misunderstood dreamer.

Tucker is a film cleverly presented as a kitschy promotional film/documentary straight out of the 1950s, complete with a cheery narrator and flashy titles that occasionally decorate the screen. However, these amusing details never distract us from the story that concerns Preston Tucker's (Jeff Bridges) dream of making a safe and reliable family automobile - a rather radical idea for his time. As a result, the established car manufacturers considered his car a threat to their products and with good reason. Tucker's car could be built for a fraction of the money it took the mainstream carmakers to build one. His car also featured a wide array of extras like disc brakes, seat belts, a fuel-injected engine in the rear, a padded dashboard, and a front windshield that popped out in a severe collision. As amazing as it seems, these ideas were considered revolutionary at the time, and as Tucker began to make his car a reality, the powerful Detroit automobile makers and the authorities in Washington, D.C. worked together to ruin him. Even though Tucker's life is ultimately one that encompasses a tragic rise and fall, the film does not feel like a somber lament but rather a colorful celebration of the wonderful things that he achieved.

The film's inception can be traced as far back as 1976 when Coppola considered it as a potential project with Marlon Brando playing Tucker. Nothing ever materialized and so Coppola ended up meeting with composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein with the idea of transforming the film into a musical comedy. This approach was deemed "impractical" and the film was shelved again. It didn't hurt that no one under 30 years of age would even know that this person actually existed. A studio wasn't interested in doing a film on a rather obscure historical figure like Preston Tucker.

It wasn't until 1986 that Tucker became a viable commodity in the eyes of a studio. This was due in large part to the involvement of Coppola's close friend and cinematic contemporary, George Lucas who guaranteed a $25 million budget for the film. Lucas' timing couldn't have been more perfect for Coppola. He was still mourning the death of his son, Gio (Coppola dedicated the film to him) and the opportunity to do a motion picture with this much creative and financial freedom renewed his love affair with film.

Coppola had a certain amount of personal affiliation with the material. His father had been one of the original investors in Tucker stock and since Coppola was a young boy he had always admired the inventor's short-lived legacy. Although, he stated in an interview that, "It was that beautiful, gleaming car that caught my imagination, but it was also something else: the whole notion of what our country was going to be like in twenty or thirty years, based on our new position in the world...our technological inventiveness." However, if one begins to examine the careers of both men, a strong parallel between the two begins to emerge. Tucker tried to push the existing boundaries of car manufacturing much in the same way that Coppola attempted to experiment with the rules of mainstream filmmaking. Like Coppola refusing to work in Hollywood, the established area to make films, Tucker resisted the urge to conform and manufacture his cars in Detroit, the heart of America's carmakers. The more the lives of both men are examined and compared, it is readily apparent to see that a boyhood admiration of the man was not the only thing that drew Coppola to this project, he saw much of himself in Preston Tucker.

By this extension, Tucker could also mirror the life of filmmaker Orson Welles, another dreamer whose ambitions often outdistanced his grasp. It's no secret that Coppola greatly admired and was influenced by Welles. Many of his films contain echoes of Welles' films - in particular Rumble Fish (1983) which is a homage of sorts to the techniques that the director made famous with Citizen Kane (1941). "I not only always admired Orson Welles, I always was drawn to the kinds of things he seemed to have been interested in - the theatre, magic, cinema, as having powerful illusion-creating abilities. And just innovation in general, to be able to use the tools of theatre or radio in a new way, that's a most wonderful thing." Tucker continues Coppola's love affair with the life and work of Orson Welles by imparting some of the man's characteristics into Preston Tucker and by using many of the director's celebrated techniques (low angle shots and deep focus photography) in his own film.

Principal photography for Tucker began on April 13, 1987 shot on location in and around the Bay Area. George Lucas' input on the production side of things helped Coppola immensely as his wife, Eleanor remembers, "Usually he's at odds with the production side of things; they haven't understood him, and haven't given him money in the areas where he needed it. On Tucker, he felt relieved to turn over some of the responsibility to George, who's a fellow filmmaker." Lucas not only leant his state-of-the-art sound facilities to Coppola, but his own expertise in filmmaking as well. This resulted in one of the director's most enjoyable and entertaining films to date.

With Tucker, Jeff Bridges shows yet again why he is one of the best actors working in film today. He plays Tucker as the eternal optimist; no matter how bad things get he remains positive. And yet, the car manufacturer does not come across as a grinning idiot, which is due in large part to Bridges' ability of showing us glimpses of Tucker's darker side - the frustration and anger he feels whenever his dreams are consistently set back. Ultimately, the enthusiasm he imparts on Tucker's character is contagious - you can't help but root for him and hope that he succeeds.

Martin Landau's character, Abe Karatz, Tucker's right hand man, is the perfect foil for Bridges' character. Abe remains a crabby cynic and sober realist throughout the film and this acts as a nice counterbalance to Tucker the dreamer. Landau's performance is nothing short of impressive and it is easy to see why he was nominated for an Academy Award-he steals every scene he's in. But Landau's best moment is when he confronts Tucker one night to tell him that he's resigning from the team. The FBI has exerted a tremendous amount of pressure by threatening to bring to light Abe's criminal past. It's an emotionally charged scene as Abe tells Tucker, "If you get too close to people, you catch their dreams." It is at this moment that Abe transforms from cynic to dreamer.

These two actors are in turn supported by a wonderful cast that features Joan Allen, Coppola regular, Frederic Forrest, Mako, Elias Koteas, Christian Slater, and Lloyd Bridges in an uncredited role as Senator Ferguson, Tucker's most formidable opponent in his battle to make automobiles. Even though each of their respective screen times vary in length they are all important in the telling of Tucker's story.

Another excellent aspect of the film is its look. With longtime collaborators like cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro and production designer Dean Tavoularis, Coppola created yet another visually impressive film. Every frame of Tucker looks beautiful and evokes a nostalgic image of the '50s with its warm color scheme that consists of brown and golden hues. This film also contains an incredible amount of detail, from the period clothing and hairstyles of the characters, to the look of Tucker's cars. All of this gives the impression that you've time warped back to America in the 1950s or at least the way most people would like to remember it.

If there is one drawback to the film, it is Coppola's omission of the more unsavory aspects of Tucker's life, like the disappearance of the $26 million that he raised. This mystery is never resolved - a significant blemish on this otherwise excellent film. Tucker makes a compelling argument against the stifling of artistic expression and innovation. If people like Preston Tucker were encouraged rather than oppressed perhaps the world would be a better place. Coppola's film argues that the country needs more people who are willing to think big and have the courage to take risks - two of the many attributes that the United States was founded on - if we are to progress and develop as a civilization. By this reasoning, the last line spoken in Tucker could actually be the film's credo: "It's the idea that counts, and the dream."

Issue 25, July/August 2004

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