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Tucker: The Man and His Dream

Beware dream projects. They almost always go awry. In the movie business, dream projects tend to gestate for many years, thanks to the exigencies of movie financing. And an idea that seems cool in the early '50s (like Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One) suddenly takes on a moldy, shopworn mien when the project finally makes it to the screen in the '80s. Beware, but also be sympathetic. For not all dream projects suffer from mothball odor. Francis Ford Coppola's Tucker: The Man and His Dream may not be in the top tier of great Coppola films such as The Godfather Parts I and II or Apocalypse Now, but it is not as bad as the jackal press indicated when it was first released in 1988 (the film went on to make some $19 million). Tucker is not Jack. It's a three-star movie on a level with other second-tier Coppola projects such as The Outsiders and Rumblefish. However, Paramount's DVD release, with its fine audio commentary by Coppola and its hard-to-find extras, make this a four star disc. The eponymous hero of the film is Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges). Just as World War II is winding down, Tucker — a man who worked at one time or another for almost all the American auto companies, and who had designed the Tucker Turret for Air Corps bombers — decides to design his own car, one that both goes fast, but also in which safety comes first. Tucker adds disc-brakes, seat-belts, pop-out windows, and a rear engine ("where it should be" he says) to his dream car. With the help of his large family led by wife Vera (Joan Allen), and the financial advice of Abe Karetz (a fictional character, played by Martin Landau in a career-revivifying turn), Tucker attracts publicity, investment bankers, and a huge warehouse in Illinois. But soon things go awry. Tucker basically signed over ownership of his car and company to his board of directors, but they begin to veto design imperatives from his corps of designers (Frederic Forrest, Elias Koteas). The dispute eventually snowballs into a federal prosecution of Tucker, instigated silently by a Michigan senator (Lloyd Bridges) in the pocket of the "Big Three," America's major car manufacturers based in Detroit.

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Does Tucker win or lose? Well, how many Tuckers do you see on the road these days? In the end, only 50 Tucker automobiles were manufactured. But to Coppola, Tucker is the winner. He can dream. He can inspire creativity in others. He can hold people together. And he fights the good fight against conventional minds and bureaucratic mediocrity. In fact, Tucker sounds an awful lot like a movie director — or at least a director like Coppola. It was much commented in reviews at the time that Tucker is something of a stand-in for Coppola, and the director almost admits to this in his commentary on this disc. Coppola had been trying to get this project together even before he made The Godfather, and there is little doubt that the director identified with the car visionary. In fact, his identification is so complete that he glorifies Tucker at the expense of strict realism (thus a business executive is a supercilious creep, framed and posed out of a silent movie to embody corporate evil). Coppola took promotional auto films of the '40s and '50s as his visual and audio model, so Tucker has a bright look and stirring sound, thanks to a clever score by Joe Jackson, and for the most part Coppola's strategy works. The film has the verve and energy of a musical without the singing and dancing. And Tucker is well acted by a huge cast — viewers seeing it again will be pleasantly surprised to catch actors such as Christian Slater, Joan Allen, and Jay O. Sanders in early roles, and Dean Stockwell in a cameo as Howard Hughes. A Laserdisc edition of Tucker with a transfer approved by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro was released in 1991, and it appears this DVD transfer bears close relation — not a bad thing, because the Paramount disc hosts a beautiful version of the film, capturing the photographer's autumnal hues and golden light in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1). Along with solid 5.1 audio in Dolby Digital (and an additional Dolby 2.0 Surround track), the disc is notable for its three key supplements. There's an audio commentary by Coppola (his first full-length effort on DVD), in which the director tracks the career of the film, talks about his and his father's relationship with the Tucker automobile (the director owns two) and comments on Tucker as a creative force dealing with the unimaginative. Coppola little addresses the technical side of Tucker, though he does point out various tricks such as faked split-screen shots actually created in the same frame on the set. It's a good commentary, and it's good to hear Coppola expound for the length of the film on the art of cinema. Coppola also provides an audio commentary on the rarely seen promotional film, Tucker – The Man and His Car from 1948. Though scratched and faded, this 15-minute short made by the Tucker corporation shows how much Coppola based his film on actual events. In his additonal commentary on this promo, the director reveals how he became interested in Tucker and describes the long process of mounting the film. Finally, there is a short "making-of" featurette called Under the Hood: Making Tucker, drawn from various interviews at the time with Coppola, the cast, and producer George Lucas, but which had never before been gathered together — making it an unusually rare feature. The moderately animated musical menu offers 15 chapter scene selection. Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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