Tucker: The Man and His Dream
By Joe Leydon

August 12, 1988 | Like the immigrant undertaker who seeks justice from Don Corleone at the start of The Godfather, filmmaker Francis Coppola believes in America. And in Tucker: The Man and His Dream, his greatest work since the glory days of his Godfather epics, he wants to show us the luminously brighter side of the American Dream that turned dark and sour for the Corleone clan. To put it simply, and gratefully, Coppola puts on a hell of a show.
Larger than life and twice as spectacular, Tucker is a grand and glorious entertainment about a visionary who dreamed, not wisely, but far too well. The movie is not so much a biography as a celebration of Preston Tucker, the innovative automobile designer of the 1940s who dared challenge the supremacy of Detroit's Big Three with ''The car of tomorrow -- today!'' His car, in Coppola's view, was ''built too good,'' so, of course, Tucker had to be defeated. But he could not be destroyed.

Following Tucker's rise and fall, Coppola covers a few years in postwar America with a full-throttle, foot-on-the-floorboard velocity. In the clever mock-newsreel that gets the movie moving, we learn Tucker, a self-styled genius, designed a high-speed combat car and a high-tech machine-gun turret for the Army before the outbreak of World War II. (The Army rejected the car as too fast, but eagerly accepted the turret.) After the outbreak of peace, Tucker vowed to create a brand new automobile that would be dynamic enough for war-weary consumers who wanted to enjoy the new national prosperity with the freshest technological advances.

Assembling a ragtag group of technicians at his spacious home in Ypsilanti, Mich., Tucker (Jeff Bridges) makes good on his promise of a brave new roadster. His masterwork: The Tucker Torpedo, a sleek, aerodynamically inspired road machine outfitted with such innovations as padded dash, pop-out windows, seat belts, fuel injection and disc brakes. Tucker, a flamboyant mixture of con man, zealot and implacable juggernaut, thinks he has the right product for the right time. Unfortunately, as Tucker learns the hard way, being right is not always enough.
By all rights, Tucker should be a tragedy. But the movie, brimming with brash vigor and bursting with all-American pride, is bigger than one man's collision with the forces of greed. Coppola has borrowed a few well-selected pages from the handbook of director Frank Capra, another American visionary, who demonstrated in such classics as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life how to snatch a moral victory from the immoral overlords of The Establishment. Tucker is at heart an ode to American ingenuity, displaying a patriotism more unabashedly exhilarating than all the flag-waving at a dozen political conventions.

Tucker is the prototypical American dreamer -- ambitious, obsessed, zestfully cocksure, and not a little impractical. That's how Coppola and his screenwriters see him, and that's how Jeff Bridges charismatically plays him. Tucker, flashing a zillion-watt smile and offering a hearty handshake, will walk into the room of his worst enemy, Sen. Homer Ferguson, little suspecting that straightforward reason simply won't work. Flawlessly polite in his sales pitch, he follows Ferguson out of his office, down the stairs, out into the street, all the while making his case for the Tucker Torpedo. Only after Ferguson snaps a chillingly witty remark, then zips off in his own car, does Tucker, his face reflecting a fearful confusion, grasp the obvious.
Tucker is a live-action mural painted in quick, bold strokes. The scenes of Tucker, his loyal family and his dedicated collaborators are as bright as billboards, as warmly sunny as a '40s magazine spread on domestic life. Coppola brings loved ones and friends close together even when they are separated: Using adjoining sets that represent locations hundreds of miles apart, he turns phone calls and conferences into compelling ''split-screen'' intimacies.

Later, when traitors inside Tucker's own boardrooms thwart his ambitious plans, or when Ferguson and other Big Three lackeys plot their machinations, or when Tucker is charged with securities fraud and brought to trial in Chicago, the imagery reflects a more foreboding mood. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Dean Tavoularis re-create the smoky lighting and paranoid ambiance of '40s film noir. By the time Tucker sums up his own defense in the courtroom, he appears in danger of literally being swallowed up by the darkness.

Bridges is splendid as Tucker, bringing a buoyantly human dimension to the exaggerations of Coppola's dramatic stylizations. You never doubt this con man actually believes his own bluster, even when he's backstage at a Chicago Auto Show, desperately patching together his hastily built prototype for an impatient audience. And, most important, you can easily appreciate how others might get caught up in his razzle-dazzling scheme.

Martin Landau gives the performance of a lifetime as Abe Karatz, a shady operator who serves as Tucker's chief financial officer and, despite his better judgment, catches Tucker fever. Or, as Landau poignantly describes in one of the movie's most affecting scenes, he has become ''infected by dreams.'' As Landau winningly plays him, Abe tries to hold out as long as possible, but finally succumbs.

Coppola has assembled a fine supporting cast, including Joan Allen as Tucker's wife and equally driven partner; Frederic Forrest as a skeptical Tucker employee; and Lloyd Bridges, Jeff's father, as the sly Sen. Ferguson. The actors do much to flesh out sketchy roles, providing weight where there is little. And that, no doubt, is why Coppola cast them, so he could spend more time on Preston Tucker.

Coppola, of course, is no stranger to the midnight terrors and sweaty-palmed anxieties that result when trying to be innovative while under pressure, close scrutiny, and the crushing weight of an ever-increasing debt. (Remember all the stories of his breakdown during the arduous filming of Apocalypse Now?) And his hard-earned knowledge likely is what enables Coppola to bring such a dramatic charge to those scenes where Tucker and his men are improving and improvising their handiwork, determined and defiant.
That Tucker eventually went bankrupt, that only 50 Tucker Torpedoes rolled off the assembly line, ultimately means little, simply because Tucker: The Man and His Dream is about something else. Coppola's Preston Tucker is a man who will not let anything, not even the certainty of defeat, hobble the spring in his step or cool the optimism in his heart.

It's easy to read the character as the director's alter ego -- Coppola, after all, had to abandon his dream of owning his own movie studio, Zoetrope, after losing a series of high-stakes artistic gambles. But there's more to the movie than automobiles and autobiography. In the world according to Tucker, creativity is a magical gift to be treasured for its own sake as a national resource. And confidence is an attitude that gives you an indefatigable ability to extract joy from life. At one point in the film, Tucker pays a late-night call on another American visionary, Howard Hughes (a terrific cameo by Dean Stockwell), in the enormous airplane hangar that is home for Hughes' Spruce Goose. ''They say it can't fly,'' says Hughes in a weary whisper. ''But that's not the point.''
No, it most certainly isn't, and Francis Coppola understands this full well. So will anyone else who takes an exhilarating spin in Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Quite simply, this is a great American movie about great American dreamers.