In Tucker: The Man and His Dream, director Francis Ford Coppola (yes, his middle name is back for this movie) has not merely undertaken to tell the true story of an American original. What Coppola is really up to here is telling a story about himself.
The real Preston Tucker was a hustler, showman and inventor who created a dream car in 1946 that is still revered by auto aficionados. The Tucker Torpedo was “Tomorrow’s Car Today,” with sleek space-age lines, an engine in the back, and a third headlight in the middle of the front end. But only 50 Tuckers were built before their creator was run out of business by the powerful Detroit automakers who weren’t ready for Tucker’s innovations.
In adapting this story, Coppola has clearly identified with the main character. When Coppola shot to directorial stardom in the early 1970s with the Godfather films, he had his own dream: to build a studio and make movies that no one else would make. It took only a few years for Coppola’s Zoetrope studio to founder and crash, a victim of an uncongenial marketplace and its leader’s excesses.
So in telling Tucker’s story, Coppola is really telling his own tale of a dream that failed. And it is fitting that Coppola brings as much cinematic dexterity to this film as Tucker brought to his car.
Coppola begins the film with a mock newsreel that breathlessly wings us through Tucker’s history up to 1946. The early scenes, establishing the savvy character of the man (another fine performance by Jeff Bridges), his beehive of a family life, and his early plans for the new car, have great crackle.
But the breezy shorthand that Coppola uses may also be the movie’s main problem. By the time Tucker has reached the climactic courtroom sequence, in which he defends his money-raising practices, I found myself wondering whether some crucial scenes had been left on the cutting room floor.
Coppola seems to be attempting a variation on Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with Tucker as the little guy who loses but wins. (Lloyd Bridges, who plays the powerful “Senator from Detroit,” is made up to look exactly like Claude Rains’ corrupt senator in Mr. Smith.) Yet the emotional punch of the finale, in which the 50 finished Tucker Torpedos line up outside the courthouse, is ineffective. It’s as though Coppola himself doesn’t quite believe in his own heartstring-tugging.
The movie should be a half-hour longer, the better to know Tucker and his wife (Joan Allen), his mechanics (Frederic Forrest, Mako, Elias Koteas), and his financier (Martin Landau). Only Landau, in his first good role in many years, makes an impression. In fact, his insecure banker is the kind of comeback role that bags supporting actor Oscar nominations.
Overall, Tucker is a disappointment, but it contains some dazzling scenes, and it’s great to look at; the period design and fashions are lovingly recreated and embellished, and Joe Jackson’s music is sharp. The high point may be the unveiling of Tucker’s prototype before a hyped audience. What the crowd doesn’t know is that the car is being feverishly jerry-built backstage. Like his hero, Coppola has gotten away with last-minute improvisation before. He will again.
First published in the Herald, August 1988
Landau did get an Oscar nomination, and it was a significant career comeback (the Oscar for Ed Wood would come along in short order). Is there a longer cut of this movie somewhere? Because that might be cool. Coppola tried to make the film as early as the mid-70s, and IMDb says he thought of Burt Reynolds for the lead role, which would have been tasty casting. The timing would’ve been much better, too; the nostalgia boom of the 70s might have supported the film’s period setting. Certainly by 1988 nobody was interested in movies about lost causes. Apparently the corny subtitle was imposed by the studio, one of the many things about Tucker that doesn’t feel quite right.