Francis Ford Coppola’s ambitious movie “Tucker: The Man and His Dream”(1988) curiously reminds me of nice-and-clean biography sets for elementary school students I used to read during my childhood years. In those books, there were always good-looking pictures depicting what great men and women did in their lifetime whenever I turned each page, and, of course, they were accompanied by the story written for them. From these books, I learned how great their achievements were, but I do not think I learned anything substantial about them as the human beings from the story. Of course, those books were well-intentioned for me and other kids, and I liked them. The problem is, they were hollow; they did not leave me any big impression except those nice pictures.
And neither does the movie. As a man who has vaguely heard about Preston Tucker, I learned several things about what he did for his dream from the movie while enjoying its surface. However, what I got from the movie is more or less than what I learned from Wikipedia. I only beheld how visionary and optimistic Tucker was in vintage American way. And I only beheld how nice his cars look – too bad he could make only 50 cars, by the way.
From what I learned from in and out of the movie, Tucker probably could have been a successful figure in American automobile industry. Although his situation was not entirely perfect, he really could have made it. He was in the right time for his ideas, and he had the ability and resources to realize his dream. After the stiffness of World War II, American people wanted something new from their cars, and Tucker correctly saw the opportunity for the success. In addition, the ideal car he mapped out at the time had many things like pop-out windshields and safety seatbelt taken for granted in our time later.
In the story, we see how eager Tucker(Jeff Bridges) is about “The Car of Tomorrow”. He proudly presents his idea in front of his family. They happily support his plan. People of his small company are willing to join him. Although there are several obstacles that worry his associate Abe(Martin Landau) much from the beginning, Tucker is always optimistic about the situation in his blind faith – even in the worst situation.
With that ever-lasting optimism from him, and the aid from Abe, He gets the permit from US government to use the huge empty plant in Chicago for setting his assembly line. As a good salesman, he also masterfully raises the money through big publicity. And he manages to show his car in front of people despite lots of troubles with the car behind the stage.
However, there are more severe problems waiting for him. Big automobile companies in Detroit do not like Tucker’s plan from the beginning. They do not like that even more when his car turns out to be quite successful. So, they try to crush his dream, and they have politicians on their side. The Securities and Exchange Committee soon begins investigation on Tucker’s company. Pragmatic Abe clearly sees what will happen to the vision he comes to admire and love.
And how does Tucker think about his plights? The movie does not show us what he thinks or what he feels. Despite Bridges’ considerable easy-going charm and flawless character embodiment, his Tucker comes to me as the man nothing more than the emblem of optimism with lots of smile rather than a real human being – he is just a thin cover for nuts and bolts of the story. There is no significant insight about him to interest us; we only know that he wants to make a great car and, sadly, that is all. What we get in the end is a typical, bland biography which ends with a big speech at the courthouse.
It is too bad considering how much effort and sincerity went into the production; it is apparently shown on the screen. The movie looks fabulous as a first-rate period piece, and production designers Dean Tavoularis and Armin Ganz and costume designer Milena Canonero were deservedly Oscar-nominated for their effort. For the authenticity, real Tucker automobiles, one of the most collectible cars now, were used for the production and they look good indeed.
Coppola had wanted to make this movie for a long time(he even tried to make a musical version of the movie with Leonard Bernstein in the 1970’s), and it is not hard to see Coppola’s plights in real life from Tucker’s at many points in the story. Like Tucker, Coppola wanted to realize his big personal visions in his career and he struggled to do it in his own way. There is the scene where the characters desperately solve the troubles in a hurry behind the stage and Tucker tries to hold the attention of people as long as can until the car is ready. From that, you cannot help but think of how frantic Coppola was when showing his epic masterpiece “Apocalypse Now” to people at Cannes after that infamously troublesome production and a big hoopla spun by himself.
Yes, Coppola and Tucker looked like an ideal match, but sometimes it is not good for the filmmakers to get too personal to their subject. When the director or the writer respects the subject too much, the movie is bound to be limited or, in worse case, crippled by their good intentions and “Tucker” is a classic example. While spending too much time on looking upon an idealistic hero and his cars, the movie loses the human dimensions, let alone the technical dimensions. The movie admires the beauty of Tucker’s automobiles, but it informs us a little about its making process.
Like Bridges’s performance, the good performances from the supporting cast are chained by the flat characterization of the story. Maybe you will be delighted to find Joan Allen(as Tucker’s devoted wife), Christian Slater(as Tucker’s elder son), and Elias Koteas(as one of Tucker’s employees) near the start of their careers. I liked Dean Stockwell’s brief but spooky appearance as Howard Hughes. Martin Landau was Oscar-nominated for his performance, and, although this is not his best, Landau deserved the nomination for playing the most human character in the movie. He has a touching scene where Abe tells Tucker how he is influenced by Tucker’s ideal.
“Tucker: The Man and His Dream” is an interesting film because of the parallels between the director and his subject. However, it failed to show the man behind the dream. While emphasizing the individuality as great American value with all its heart, the movie never tells us about the cost of the struggle against fearful odds on personal level. The movie reminds me of recent movie “Flash of Genius”(2008), a story about a battle between a big automobile company and one man. That movie does not forget the cost for that and it prods us to think about it in feel-good ending. In case of Tucker in Coppola’s movie, well, he does not seem to give a damn about it at all – but who knows?