Coppola: Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)

Francis Ford Coppola closed out the 80s with Tucker: The Man and His Dream, a biopic of Preston Tucker, played by Jeff Bridges, the car designer who tried to take on the Big Three of automobile manufacturers in the 40s with his own eccentric design, dubbed the Tucker Sedan. Only fifty Tucker Sedans were made, and they all make an appearance in this exuberant love letter to cars, which compresses the early part of Tucker’s life and career to the opening credits so that we can entirely focus on the picaresque evolution of his automotive masterpiece. We meet Tucker unveiling the first sketch of the car to his family in the opening scene, and then move through a sprawling cast that includes Joan Allen, Martin Landau, Elias Koteas, Frederic Forrest and Christian Slater, all of whom move with the stylised swagger of a musical or stage production, set against the same lush atmospherics as Peggy Sue Got Married, as Tucker takes on the corporations and institutions standing in his path.

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While the individual hurdles are interesting, Tucker is driven by pace, buoyancy and optimism above all else, which makes every scene seem as if it is set behind the wheel, restlessly searching for what’s around the next corner, or over the next horizon. The mood is continually raucous and cacophonous, with rarely fewer than five people in a single scene, and Tucker is in virtually every scene, always pitching some aspect of his car in a heightened state of animation. Tucker is monomaniacal in the best possible way, since he has no identity or purpose outside the car, which he completely personifies and embodies, but this never makes the film itself seem monomaniacal, since Coppola creates a world that is just as cartoony as Tucker’s creation – a world where the futuristic fixtures of the Tucker Sedan seem just right.

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For that reason, Tucker often resembles a Coen Brothers film, shot through with the same hyperreal historicity as The Hudsucker Proxy, which was released five years later. Although Tucker uses his surname for his car, everyone calls him Preston, which makes sense, since he often recalls the characters and scenarios of Preston Sturges, who was a major influence on the Coen Brothers’ world view too. Tucker is thus the perfect vehicle – pun intended – for Bridges’ charisma, his radiant assurance that the world is inherently comic, even if we don’t always get the great cosmic joke playing out around us. Time and again, Tucker absorbs every  hiccup or setback into a soaring optimism, only permitting himself the occasional display of frustration or anger when he’s met with the corporate monopoly of the Big Three automobile companies. In fact, Tucker is so hypnotic and compelling in his optimism that it’s hard to believe that the car never became widespread, since we seem to be watching a success story.

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At the end of the 80s, and on the cusp of returning to the Godfather universe, Tucker thus forms a cipher for Coppola’s own experiences working inside the studio system, after his own production company American Zoetrope went bankrupt in the wake of One From the Heart. It’s not hard to see the Tucker Sedan as a symbol of Coppola’s auteurist ambitions, and the Big Three as a displaced version of the Hollywood studio system, explaining why Coppola clearly has such an affinity for Tucker as a zany auteurist. This makes Tucker something considerably more than a biopic, since Coppola isn’t merely content to document his protagonist’s visions, but actually sets out to fulfil them, if only by showcasing all the remaining Tucker Sedans in existence throughout the course of the film. In doing so, he evokes an alternative 40s in which this car became as omniscient in the real world as it is here.

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While Gardens of Stone formed a kind of spiritual sequel to Apocalypse Now, Tucker is where Coppola takes stock of his three magnum opuses – The Godfather, The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now – and how to recalibrate them for this later stage in his career, and the different demands of the imminent 1990s. Both The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now, in particular, seem to glimpse a new kind of image field – the spectacular arm of the American military-industrial complex, which Coppola tried to incorporate into his own auteurism in his own peculiar take on postmodernism. In Tucker, Coppola focuses on the industrial end of that new spectacular field, converging the two most expansive spaces in his career to date – Lake Tahoe in The Godfather Part II, and the Mekong Delta in Apocalypse Now – on the moment when Tucker first unveils his car to the public, in the media event that sets the film in motion.

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This first unveiling is an important learning curve for Tucker, who realises that he has to sell his car as a spectacular experience as much as a consumer item. It also establishes the basic pattern of the film, in which Tucker continually has to postpone the release of the car, and fall back upon spectacle in the interim, while simultaneously amping up that spectacle to keep his investors and his public interested. During this initial unveiling, a series of backstage problems mean that Tucker has to resort to the Tuckerettes, a collection of dancing showgirls, then a miniature version of the car, and finally a series of trumpet fanfares, as the crowd get restless and clamour for the real thing to be brought out from behind the velvet curtain. This audience, surrounded by media conglomerates, is easily the most scopic of Coppola’s 80s spaces, and plays like a cipher for all the fans demanding a Coppola film on par with The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now. For that reason, it also feels like Coppola steeling himself to engage with his audience again in a new way on the cusp of The Godfather Part III.

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Nevertheless, when Tucker does unveil the car, it makes for the most spectacular moment in Coppola’s career since the McCarran Airport sequence at the end of One From the Heart – so spectacular that it takes the film itself into a new spectacular plane, as Coppola shifts from the car launch to an elegant and abstracted sequence in which the Tucker Sedan revolves on a plinth for the benefit of the cinema audience only. All the spectacle of the film is here condensed to the beauty and ingenuity of the car design, which in turn propels the film itself into a new level of spectacle, as we cut to Tucker flying in an airplane to the car’s next appearance. Over the middle part of the film, Tucker flies to most launches and media events, creating a synergy between road and air travel that turns the Sedan into a grounded plane.

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These flying sequences mark the first time that Coppola has genuinely rivalled the enormous sightlines and expansive vistas of Apocalypse Now and The Godfather Part II in his 80s output – a genuine technological sublime that culminates with Tucker’s hushed night flight to visit Howard Hughes in Florida. At this point, Coppola reframes air travel from a vehicle to a spectacle in itself, as Tucker marvels in wonder at the plane in Hughes’ hangar, seeing in it something commensurate to his vision of what the Tucker Sedan might entail. Sure enough, Hughes gets Tucker a deal to acquire steel and aluminium from a helicopter plant that is going out of business – and Tucker finds the missing ingredient for his car in discarded helicopter engines. Helicopters were at the heart of the technological sublimity of Apocalypse Now, so it feels as if Coppola has also repackaged and repurposed that approach here, effectively turning Apocalypse Now on its side much as Tucker has to turn the helicopter engines on their sides to fit them into his cars, while referring to the Sedan itself as a helicopter laid sideways.

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This use of helicopter engines completes the film’s convergence of automobile and aeronautical cues, ushering in Tucker and Coppola’s most assured gesture of panoramic spectacle yet – a training run in which the Tucker Sedan drives around the same racing circuit for twenty-four hours, while Tucker films it continuously, and Coppola cuts between the loops of the car and the loops of the film reel recording it. The Tucker Sedan thereby becomes the optical device that Coppola needs to rein in the amorphous spatial field that has been haunting his films ever since The Godfather Part 2 and Apocalypse Now, while Tucker himself recapitulates Coppola’s experience of trying to retain control of a spectacle that is always on the verge of exceeding him – a spectacle subject to the whims and vicissitudes of the market above all else. For Tucker, that means the pressure to sell stocks in his company before he can work on the car and, later on, the need to sell the car to consumers even as his investors are changing the design without his permission. As a result, this is Coppola’s most autobiographical film so far  – Coppola: The Man and His Dream – and the film where he really comes to terms with the thwarted auteurism of his 80s oeuvre, haunted by the lost futures of his filmography much as Tucker is entranced by the Tucker Sedans lined up in his factory.

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It feels right, then, that the film ends with two spectacles that are both ambitious and aborted, glimpsing a panoramic scope that neither Tucker nor Coppola can quite control. In the first, Tucker executes a “hundred-mile chase” to promote the Sedan, encouraging the media to wait for him at the police station where the chase concludes, but then stepping straight into the hands of police, who escort him to the final trial with the Big Three automobile companies. The second spectacle occurs at the end of this trial, when Tucker tries to persuade the judge to allow the jury to walk thirty feet to see the bank of fifty Tucker Sedans – the only ones in existence – parked in a line outside the courtroom. While the judge refuses to grant Tucker’s request, the light intensifies behind him during his final summary, as if the glare of the sun off the Sedans is illuminating the entire courtroom, lending a fiery gravitas to Tucker’s insistence that auteurism is the most noble distillation of free enterprise.

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In these final scenes, Bridges’ casting is critical, since his presence nearly always suggests an eternal, residual optimism – a comic assurance, in this case, that Coppola and Tucker’s auteurist spirit can and must prevail. While the Tucker Sedan never made it to market, Coppola focuses on the small victory of Tucker winning his case here, and then balloons it into a final sequence of pure fantasy, as the jurors spill outside the courtroom and leap into the Sedans, taking a joyride in these “cars that don’t exist” for a panoramic promenade that brings Coppola’s 80s output to an ebullient close. Despite conceding that he can’t reach the heights of The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now again, Coppola seems to have found a new optimism and buoyancy in these final moments, spurred on by Tucker’s own resilience about his creations: “What’s the difference – fifty or fifty million! That’s only machinery – it’s the idea that counts, the dream.” In these last seconds, Coppola also seems to have bypassed the mechanics of auteurist self-regard for a more natural and organic return to dreaming, in one of the most joyous films of his whole career – and still a high watermark in his body of work.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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