Francis Ford Coppola is one of the best directors of the past fifty years, but not necessarily one of the best screenwriters, and his directorial artistry is boldly and poignantly on view in a movie that was written for him: the bright-toned and occasionally comedic but essentially tragic drama “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” from 1988. The movie, based on the true story of the automotive visionary Preston Tucker, was Coppola’s idea, but the script (which Coppola nonetheless altered during production) was written by Arnold Schulman and David Seidler (who actually didn’t work together on it). The process was, judging from the results, liberating for Coppola—paradoxically so, because the film may be his most personal work, albeit by ricochet. The screenplay was a libretto to which he provided the soaring, swinging, and searing cinematic music.
The action starts in 1945, when Tucker (played with brash and good-humored verve by Jeff Bridges), who is building an advanced tank turret for the war effort in a barn next to his family home, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, sets in motion a bold plan to design, build, and market an entirely new kind of car—one that will be better than, and will successfully compete with, the ones made by Detroit’s Big Three automakers. He gets a New York investment banker, Abe Karatz (Martin Landau), to handle the business side; he has a team of devoted and innovative engineers (portrayed by Mako, Elias Koteas, and Frederic Forrest) working with him; and he has family members—his wife, Vera (Joan Allen), and his son, Preston, Jr., (Christian Slater)—working with him, too.
Tucker’s ideas involve bold and exquisite visual lines and also technological advances, including rear-engine design, disk brakes, fuel injection, and a wide range of such safety features as seat belts, shatterproof glass, and interior padding. But, as Abe reminds Tucker, manufacturing cars isn’t just a matter of ideas but also a matter of difficult, large-scale, and expensive practicalities. Much of the movie is centered on the clash between Tucker’s advanced and stylish vision for his car and the hard-nosed business of raising money, selling stock, and dealing with the powers that be. Tucker makes himself a celebrity to advance the project and then devotes time and energy to the demands of publicity while an outside C.E.O. (Dean Goodman) waters down his audacities; Tucker throws temper tantrums when his ideas aren’t being realized as planned. He installs the company in a vast factory in Chicago, which both enables production and increases complications and conflicts; Vera laments that the family is increasingly burdened with “debts and more debts” as the project advances.
“Tucker” is perhaps Coppola’s most autobiographical film, because, in many ways, Tucker’s work is akin to that of Coppola’s efforts to run a movie studio in his own distinctive way. Tucker’s plans to compete with Detroit, from Chicago, by way of his personal vision and higher-quality cars resembles Coppola’s competition with Hollywood by founding his Zoetrope Studios, in San Francisco. His enterprise resembles Coppola’s in other ways, too: the overlap of professional and family life, the burden of running a vast facility, the plans to make an entire range of automobiles in a wide variety of styles and functions, the extraordinary devotion of an inner circle of innovative collaborators, the confrontations with the gotcha malevolence and insidious gossip-mongering of industry journalists, the toll of financial burdens, and even a climactic sequence in which Tucker seeks redemption by letting people see a prototype batch of cars—let’s say, the director’s cut of the vehicles.
Coppola tells this story with grand exuberance without masking the personal and historical tragedies that it involves. He includes a mysterious sidebar involving Howard Hughes (played by Dean Stockwell) as a savior and a kindred spirit and whose aircraft company comes off as a sanctum sanctorum of audacity and innovation. The movie’s costumes and décor, their color and light, lend the expansive action extraordinary visual vitality; Coppola’s own inner circle, including the cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, the costume designer Milena Canonero, and the production designer Dean Tavoularis, display an uninhibited inventiveness that suggests the power of its personal implications. The entire film gleams with the allure of lacquered sheet metal and hurtles forward with the supercharged art and refined science of reinvigorated, industrial-strength movie-studio craft, which Coppola and his crew raise to new heights of imagination. Tucker’s story comes off no less than the story of other, more heralded films by Coppola—or than Coppola’s own story—as an exemplary American legend.
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