Tucker: The Man and his Dream (Francis Ford Coppola, 1988)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Tucker: The Man and his Dream.

criterion logoTucker: The Man and his Dream is one of Francis Ford Coppola’s most personal films, a long-desired project decades in imagining and producing.  Coppola, with the assistance of executive producer George Lucas, creates a portrait of the American dream challenged, but undaunted.  Brilliantly portrayed by Jeff Bridges, Preston Tucker is an engineer, showman, and iconoclast committed to delivering the car of the future, only to be opposed by Detroit’s Big 3 automakers and their political influence.  Filmed with slick ad-style optimism and big band exuberance, Tucker captures the ambition and eccentricity of post-war America against the growing shadow of corporate and political consolidation.

Disc Features:

Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream was a highly regarded box-office failure at its release, but has since become something of a quiet classic in the wake of ’80s nostalgia.  Perhaps the film’s appeal is contributed to an out of print DVD with some interesting special features, including a commentary by Coppola.  Tucker depicts Preston Tucker’s efforts to build and market a new motor vehicle, the 1948 Tucker Torpedo.  Tucker’s vehicle was unlike anything existing in the market at that time, both in terms of style and newly developed safety features, however the advances promoted by Tucker’s car threatened the hegemony of America’s Big 3 automakers and the film recounts the conspiracies and sharp practices that ultimately cut short Tucker’s foray into the auto industry.

In his DVD commentary, Coppola repeatedly refers to his film as a “contraption.”  The term is particularly apt, capturing in a single word many of the features that makes Tucker an intriguing and charismatic film.  For starters, a contraption evokes a sense of novelty that the Torpedo certainly has and which Coppola is able to root in the movie.  Tucker proceeds at a whiz-bang pace due largely to the filmmaker’s efforts to have the film emulate 1940s-style advertising, particularly with dynamic angles, motivated cuts, and murals and other visual art.  If Tucker seems overly idealized, simplified, or truncated, it’s because it is, and intentionally so.  The film is about a dream, an American one, that intends to make the world a better place, and Coppola happily relies on the glossy, smiling techniques advertising uses to promise our wish-fulfillment.

Further, Tucker is a contraption in the sense that it is assembled, seemingly ad hoc and by hand, from parts to suit a new purpose.  This surely applies to the Torpedo, as the film goes at lengths to represent Tucker’s struggles in finding the parts, equipment, and manpower to see his vehicle on the road, however Coppola’s picture is one made out of its own history and the history of cinema.  Tucker is a reclaimed project, originally intended as a musical (and apparently also an experimental film, although the source of the assertion remains unknown).  Coppola acknowledges relying on various stock characters and situations from 1940s Hollywood cinema to populate his film, noting his particular interest in Tucker as a Capraesque effort on his part (despite Capra himself being underwhelmed with the concept, feeling that Tucker ultimately fails in the end).  The use of on-set and in-camera effects that frequent Tucker (such as placing different sets alongside one another to create a split-screen effect while still having the performers in fact occupy the same space) hearkens to an older methodology of film production.  The film’s use of motivated cuts is specifically connected to those in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), although the film seems to owe a greater debt to Kane than otherwise acknowledged, with its focus on a bigger than life personality, his battle against the establishment, the deceptively widespread use of visual tricks and effects, and those low angle shots that let you see the ceiling.  Again, if Tucker feels less than contemporary, perhaps somewhat out-moded, it’s because it is, and intentionally so.

Let’s conclude by suggesting that a contraption is something individual, intended for a specific purpose and involving a mechanism with an unusual or unexpected result.  At the time, the Tucker Torpedo was such a contraption, and that’s easy to miss given how Tucker’s vision became incorporated into automotive designs of the 1950s.  Tucker was something unusual in its own right for the 1980s and perhaps suffered commercially for its individuality, but the film was a highly personal vision for which its director seems satisfied and personally rewarded.  As might be expected, Coppola family ties abound in Tucker.  Coppola’s composer father was an original Tucker investor and his music appears in the film.  Coppola’s daughters make cameos for sharp-eyed viewers.  A Tucker sedan from the film now inhabits the lobby of the filmmaker’s winery.  In his commentary, Coppola frequently mentions how the Tucker house resembles his own, as does the proximity of the workspace to the residence.  Less discussed by the filmmaker is the obvious parallel between Tucker and Coppola – the struggles to achieve personal and artistic visions, the perceived oppression by established forces, the significance of family with professional life, the cost of understanding it and being right before all else.

The Criterion Collection has love for Coppola by its laser disc for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), his appearances on extras for The Thief of Bagdad (Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan, 1940) and Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980), and his essay for Salvatore Giuliano (Francesco Rosi, 1961).  With that degree of involvement, it’s even more surprising that no Coppola film bears a wacky “C.”  We’ll admit to having mixed feeling about Coppola’s filmography, but Tucker: The Man and his Dream is an effective and appealing film about a small corner of American history.  A Criterion release would provide an opportunity to reclaim some valued special features from the OOP DVD and develops some new ones as well.  Plus, it would be nice to see more of the ever-likable Jeff Bridges in the Collection.  (We’ve failed to mention how great Bridges is, but does that even need to be said?  Is he ever poor in anything?)  Tucker is a movie waiting for rediscovery and the legitimization that comes with holding a Criterion spine number.

Joost SwarteThere is plenty of poster art to draw upon and create a cover for Tucker, each in its own fashion representing the titular character as a confident, patriotic and kind-hearted American industrialist.  Ranging from art deco to the Rockwellian to 1940s advertising, any number of styles could fit a clever cover, but Criterion’s charm has always been in finding unusual artists to express the spirit of a given film.  For Tucker, Dutch artist Joost Swarte is a perfect choice.  Beyond the obvious interest in motor vehicles with the modernist aesthetics promoted by Preston Tucker, Swarte’s ligne claire style (employing consistent line width and avoiding gradations in shading and texture) conveys a simplicity and directness complimentary to the optimism of Tucker and America following WWII.  Still, Swarte’s use of this style is not without its ironies, still being able to create provocative and transgressive content.  Leave it to Joost Swarte to add to a cover treatment the establishment hypocrisy that conspired to ruin Tucker.

Credits: The Francis Ford Coppola commentary, the Under the Hood documentary, and the Tucker promotional film (with commentary) all date back to the original DVD edition.  Many of the remaining special features draw upon the bounty of continued interest in Preston Tucker and the industrialist’s own materials.  David Cammack recently passed away and so we are unfortunately left with the video pieces that already exist on the car collector.  Peter Cowie was selected to provide an essay as a Coppola biographer and a long-time friend of the Collection, while Jay Leno adds some novelty and a wealth of car knowledge (including some Tucker specific posts on his Jay Leno’s Garage site).  And keep an eye out in the Life+Times episode for footage of Coppola’s Tucker Torpedo!

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