The car of the future…defeated by the graft of the past.
Preston Tucker was a man you may not have heard of. But in the years following World War II he made innovations in car design that we still use today, such as seat belts, safety glass, and independent suspension. These improvements were frightening to the Big Three automakers and they did all they could to prevent Tucker from building his "car of the future." These historical events are the subject of Francis Ford Coppola's (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) film Tucker: The Man and His Dream, a visually stunning period piece that is both inspiring and depressing. Wonderful performances by Jeff Bridges, Martin Landau, and Joan Allen (The Contender) are nearly overshadowed by the car itself, of which only 50 were made and virtually all of which appear in the film. Paramount has released a fine THX certified DVD of the film.
Facts of the Case
Just following World War II Preston Tucker, an automotive designer working out of his barn, designs a car so revolutionary that the public imagination is captured from a mere advertising drawing. Against the odds he manages to secure a large factory from the government and sets out to build his new car, the Tucker Torpedo. The big three automakers realize that it would cost them billions of dollars to keep up with the innovative improvements Tucker is making and advertising, and pulls out all the stops to crush him. They set out to destroy his reputation by claiming he is a fraud, deny him steel to build with, and get their pet Senator Ferguson (played by Lloyd Bridges) to start legal action against him. The tale follows the real historical events as only 50 Tucker automobiles get produced before the iron boot of the graft-ridden government rolls over him.
This was a very personal film for Francis Ford Coppola, as he has been enamored of both the car and the man Preston Tucker for many years. Finally after many successful films under his belt he had enough pull with the studios to get the film made. With the help of executive producer George Lucas (you probably never heard of him, but I hear he did some science fiction films), who was also an owner of two original Tuckers, they set out to make a historical film with the help of the Tucker family and period documents. The result is a visually stunning piece; gorgeous in its imagery and playing out much like an advertising newsreel.
The real star of the film is the car itself. To people of the 1940s it must have looked like something from outer space, and still has a beauty that few other cars have matched. Beyond the unusual look of the car, it incorporated many new features considered standard today, such as seat belts, disc brakes, safety glass, and independent suspension. The car was far safer than anything being built at the time, and in one scene rolled over 3 times at 95mph during a test, and still drove away while the driver got out with only a scratch. One of the ever-present emotions during the film is one of loss, as we realize that this car was denied to the American people who were forced to accept an inferior product. Out of the 51 original Tuckers ever made, 46 of them are fully restored and road worthy, and all of them are reported to have been used in the film. Coppola and Lucas each own two.
The character of Preston Tucker is drawn somewhat from the feel of the film, which tried to look like an 8x10 glossy advertisement from the 1940s. Jeff Bridges interpretation of the character seems like one part Thomas Edison, one part Henry Ford, and one part P.T. Barnum. He is almost a sideshow barker for his car, and leaves many of the details of his imagination to his engineers to make reality. Though he had ample automotive design training, he plays the part of visionary rather than the one who gets into the nuts and bolts. While Bridges (one of my favorite underrated actors) plays his role to perfection, I felt at times that the real title of the film should have been "Tucker: The Car and His Dream" since the man himself was only drawn in broad strokes. A dreamer and a cheerleader, yes, but a well drew human being, no.
The supporting cast is better drawn, especially in the case of Martin Landau, who played the business partner Abe Karras, an emotionally dead man who is revitalized by the infectious optimism of Tucker. Landau received a well-earned Golden Globe and Oscar nomination for his role. Also refreshing were supporting players Joan Allen, Christian Slater, Elias Koteas, and Mako. Dean Stockwell was also truly impressive in a cameo as the eccentric Howard Hughes. The characters that surrounded Tucker gave the film its heart.
I mentioned that the film is visually stunning. Both the art/set direction and the costume design were also nominated for Oscars, and certainly both contributed to the beauty of the film. Coppola uses visual imagery in a way that few directors can match, and his artistic touch in direction brings the film up several notches in my esteem.
Paramount has brought that visual beauty accurately to the DVD. Rich, vibrant colors come alive with perfect saturation and clarity. The level of detail of this anamorphic widescreen transfer is astounding. This is absolutely first-rate work, and I'm extremely impressed. I don't know if the THX license helped, but it sure didn't hurt in this case.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack also gets my admiration. The wonderful 1940s tunes come through with a great deal of fidelity, and the front soundstage is wide and deep. The rear channels don't get a lot of use except for the music, but they are active. Bass response is a bit limited, but I don't think there was much in that register coming from the mix to begin with. Dialogue and sound effects are smooth and clearly heard. Only a slight bit of hiss you can hear during silent or low volume moments would be considered a flaw in an otherwise wonderful audio experience.
There are three main extras on the disc. The biggest of these is the feature length commentary track from director Francis Ford Coppola. He covers the technical aspects of the film well, and talks of the historical aspects of the story; where scenes were drawn right out of the real events and where things had to be changed for the film. Overall it is very good, and I'm glad to simply get a commentary from this fine director, but he does lapse into silence at times, which is never good. Next up is the pieced together feature "Under the Hood: Making Tucker"; 10 minutes of interview snippets involving members of the cast along with Coppola and Lucas themselves. I found it compelling and an excellent addition. Likewise I really enjoyed the 14-minute original promotional film for the car, called "Tucker: The Man and the Car." This 1948 promotional piece had the usual emotive narrator and really pitched the value, quality, and safety of the car, along with plenty of footage of the real life Preston Tucker. This piece is offered with or without commentary from Francis Ford Coppola.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Real life sucks. I often think this to myself when I watch a real historical event related on film. One of the reasons we watch movies is to escape from real life into a world where the good guys in the white hats win in the end, where the guy gets the girl, and where visionary entrepreneurs aren't ground under the heel of corporate America. Real life is all too often not that type of place and bad things happen to good people, and right does not always triumph. So in Braveheart the hero is killed, and in Tucker the better car doesn't get made. This isn't really a complaint about the film as it needed to be historically accurate, but at the same time I didn't enjoy it as much as I might have. If this were to be taken as a cautionary tale that might change the importance of corporate American on our lives and make more room for the little guy I'd be happier; but I'm cynical enough to believe such things as those happening in this film are still business as usual.
My only real complaint with the story is that we never learn much about Tucker the man. He is a dreamer, a visionary even, but we see little more than people looking at the promotional film do about the man. As I said, sometimes the car upstages the man. Though I admit it is a thing of mechanical beauty, character development still should come first.
I have little to complain about with the disc. Including a trailer would have been nice, along with an insert of production notes.
Tucker: The Man and His Dream is a lush, beautiful film with fine performances and a true to life slice of history. The disc is outstanding with a fantastic transfer and great sound, along with some very nice extra content. I highly recommend the disc for rental or purchase.
Everyone involved with both film and disc are utterly acquitted. I sentence the big three automakers for violations of anti-trust laws and award compensation to the Tucker family in the amount of $500 million.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track
Review content copyright © 2000 Norman Short; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.