It’s strange, I think, that I had never heard of Preston Tucker nor this film until I stumbled across it in those painfully tempting yet frustrating bargain bins at Wal-Mart. I thought, oh my, Francis Ford Coppola? I’m all for this, it can’t be too bad. I came home from my purchase and checked my handy Leonard Maltin film guide (I never trust him for genre films, but generally feel that anything that might be termed classic or that was directed by the director of a classic he is likely to be decently reliable on–certainly his positive opinions rarely, if ever, clash with mine) and found he had given the film 3.5/4 stars, and so I nodded, satisfied and set the movie on my shelf to be watched when I got around to it (chronologically by time of purchase).
I put it in and felt the time was right to watch it (sometimes the mood just isn’t right for my gut instinctual expectation of a movie) and raised an eyebrow as the film started on the “crest” of the Tucker Motor Company and told me this was a promotional film made by said company for promotion of the car and the man, emulating the opening of the promotional film actually made for the car in 1948, a bonus feature on the DVD. Instead of “The Man and His Dream,” as the movie is subtitled, it was “The Man and His Car.” From here we hear music reminiscent of ads from the time, later used for ironic or dissonant effect in cartoons like Ren and Stimpy, and overly cheerful images of Tucker’s family and the man himself (Jeff Bridges). We jump rapidly from him introducing the concept of the car to his family straight into attempts to build a company to manufacture it. His car was one that challenged ideas of automotive manufacturing in that time, adding things like fuel injection (never appearing in the actual cars, though), seat belts, pop-out windshields for crashes, padded dashboards, swivelling headlights for saftey on curves (!), and a very futuristic look. When he begins to design in earnest with associates Jimmy Sakuyama (Mako, who recently voiced Splinter in TMNT–yeah, you heard me) and Eddie Dean (Frederic Forrest), he suddenly receives audience with Alex Tremulis (Elias Koteas, more Turtles casting, seen two years later as vigilante Casey Jones–sorry, that’s what I will always know him as), an automotive designer soon to exit the Air Force. He begins to find himself being squeezed by the Big Three (Ford, General Motors and Chrysler) and the politicians they support (who in turn support them) as he tries to realize his dream of an advanced, safe and affordable car.
The supporting cast includes Oscar-nominated Martin Landau (I’m not a company trying to sell DVDs, so of course I mean nominated for THIS role) as Abe Karatz, who helps Tucker to finance the company and gain the funds to build a prototype and sell stock so that they can gain the support and backing to begin production, Christian Slater as Tucker’s eldest son who gives up Notre Dame acceptance to follow his father into the automotive industry, and Dean Stockwell as, yes, Howard Hughes. There’s also an uncredited role for Lloyd Bridges as Senator Homer Ferguson.
The film has been accused of flaws by some, likely the reason it is partly forgotten; it has been called too Capra-esque (which of course I only understand from context, having seen no Capra, yet, though I now have 6 movies waiting in the wings) and Ebert accused it of not bothering to round out Tucker. Once again Ebert shows that he thinks he’s smarter than he actually is, and that he’s very judgmental and condescending about things he doesn’t actually understand (though he’s also prone to praise things he doesn’t understand either, I’ve noted, when he calls Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn…satire? What?). The truth is the film IS made to be like a Capra-esque promotional film. If that’s not your thing, that’s one thing, but don’t criticize it for achieving its goals. It’s filmed with many advertising tricks and the sort of feel of the idealized film world (or television world, if we add around a decade to its setting)–especially one designed to sell something. There are brilliant cuts and sweeps, an exit from a living room blending seamlessly into a government office, or Tucker and Karatz sharing a distant phone call through what appears to be only a wall. This is never carried off with a Spike Jonze style modern quirk, but as if it’s a carefully choreographed musical, perhaps (Coppola admits in the special features that this is something he considered for Tucker’s story) and as if it’s natural but exaggerated. Bridges is the perfect choice for this role. My mother is annoyed by him because he’s so good at playing a naïve, victimized “good guy.” But that’s exactly what’s called for here. This film is promoting Tucker, that’s exactly the intention. So of course he comes off as overly glowing, friendly, charismatic and charming. That’s the way he’s advertised. But we see it in a way, much like in advertising, that convinces us that somehow this is true all the same. As Tucker says at one point, “people believe what they read in the papers even if they don’t believe it.” We know no one could possibly be like this, this positive in the face of such adversity, this naïve and unassuming (though he’s not blind to the crush of the competition, he’s often underestimating their power) when shown so consistently how wrong he is to be as such. But that’s the idea here. It’s about the ideal of the American dream*, about what free enterprise is SUPPOSED to mean.
We see a family that is unrealistically supportive of each other at any and all times, but we like them so much, and they are somehow believable in spite of this, that we root for them, we want them to be real anyway, and we don’t care how nonsensical that is. We see the evil Senator (Bridges) using his influence to support the Big Three and crush the newcomer upstart, and we know no one is this intentionally, openly and undeniably sleazy and near-evil, but we accept his villainy anyway, because the film has set itself up as an artificial representation of a true story, and told us from the beginning that that is exactly what we are seeing. There is no dodging of the idea; it is clear from the words “promotional” in the first thirty seconds that this is not intended to represent events, facts and people accurately. It is intended to advertise something the director admires, something he thinks represents an idea nearly lost in the modern world, and nearly lost in 1948 when these events occurred. Coppola loves Preston Tucker and has no shame about it, so he built a movie that advertises, well–The Man and His Dream.
*I want it noted that “ideal” being used incorrectly grates on me, and I use it here as an abbreviated reference to the idea of the “idealized” American dream, not the concept (idea).