Thursday 28 May 2020

Movie Review: Tucker: The Man And His Dream (1988)

A heartfelt biography, Tucker is the remarkable story of a visionary automobile designer fearlessly challenging the system.

Shortly after the end of World War Two, vivacious Michigan-based innovator Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges) correctly predicts that owning a car will be a big part of the new post-war American dream. Supported by wife Vera (Joan Allen) and a large brood of children including eldest son Preston Jr. (Christian Slater), he imagines a concept car with innovative safety and aerodynamic features: seat-belts, disc brakes, a rear-mounted engine, a front windshield that pops out in the event of a crash, and steering-responsive headlights.

Tucker: I grew up a generation too late, I guess, because now the way the system works, the loner, the dreamer, the crackpot who comes up with some crazy idea that everybody laughs at, that later turns out to revolutionize the world - he's squashed from above before he even gets his head out of the water because the bureaucrats, they'd rather kill a new idea than let it rock the boat!

Preston turns to New York financier Abe Karatz (Martin Landau) to find investors, and creates a publicity splash by advertising a car that does not yet exist. He hires designer Alex Tremulis (Elias Koteas) and they cobble together a barely functional prototype for a grand unveiling. Tucker secures a large warehouse in Chicago and gets to work manufacturing the car, but the traditional big three automakers sense a threat. Soon Tucker is facing a variety of financial and legal challenges, including from his own board of directors.

Tucker: Isn't that the idea? To build a better mouse trap?
Abe Karatz: Not if you're a mouse!

A long-term passion project for director Francis Ford Coppola, Tucker is a glitzy and spirited slice of the American dream with all the promises and disappointments inherent in audaciously aiming to disrupt the status quo. Sometimes bordering on a puff piece but also carrying hints of Coppola's own career legacy as an outside-the-system idealist, the film is powered by Tucker's driven yet exceptionally amiable personality, eternally optimistic and capable of navigating around any obstacle - or speeding past it.

And Tucker's real-life achievements testify to his vision and relentless pursuit of excellence. Prized for their craftsmanship and exceptional durability, Tucker sedans remained on the roads for decades, and many of their groundbreaking safety features were eventually adopted into mainstream auto manufacturing.

The film rides the post-war nation building wave of optimism and energy to a glitzy showroom shine. With extravagant set designs Coppola brings to life the late 1940s with a flourish, and infuses Tucker with a jaunty style and brisk pacing, wrapping up the story in 110 minutes. 

Tucker: But if big business closes the door on the little guy with a new idea, we're not only closing the door on progress, but we're sabotaging everything that we fought for! Everything that the country stands for!! And one day we're gonna find ourselves at the bottom of the heap instead of king of the hill, having no idea how we got there, buying our radios and our cars from our former enemies. 

But a few areas do fall short. Preston Tucker is presented as almost faultless, and despite the singular focus his principles and philosophies are only articulated at the end of the climactic mini courtroom drama. For most of the film Jeff Bridges is reduced to flashing a goofy smile with an occasional exhibition of temper. And other than Martin Landau's evocative turn as friend and financier Abe Karatz, all the other secondary characters, including wife Vera and eldest son Preston Jr., are shortchanged or reduced to stock representations.

Abe, to Tucker: I want you to know something, Tucker. I went into business with you for one reason - to make money. That's all. How was I to know, if I got too close, I'd catch your dreams.

But the sharp script by Arnold Schulman and David Seidler rides out the rough patches with aplomb. Tucker may have been a better salesman than businessman, but nothing was going to stop him racing around the next corner for the sheer joy of it.

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