Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Tucker: The Man and His Dream: Special Edition (1988)
Studio Line: Paramount Pictures

According to New York Magazine, Tucker: A Man And His Dream is "as fast, sleek and streamlined as the car - the Tucker Torpedo, that Preston Tucker built in 1948." And filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas celebrate Preston Tucker as the ultimate believer in the American dream.

In a dazzling portrayal by Jeff Bridges, Tucker is a dynamic engineer and an enthusiastic showman who envisions the car of the future. Against mighty odds he manages to build a fleet of them - only to have his factory shut down by Detroit's Big Three automobile manufacturers. They took away his car - but nobody could take away his dream.

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Joan Allen, Martin Landau, Frederic Forrest, Mako, Elias Koteas, Christian Slater
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Supporting Actor-Martin Landau; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Costume Design, 1989.
DVD: Widescreen 1.90:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1, French Dolby Surround; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 15 chapters; rated PG; 110 min.; $29.99; street date 10/24/00.
Supplements: Audio Commentary from Director Francis Ford Coppola; "Under the Hood" 10-minute Documentary; "Tucker: the Man and the Car" 1948 Promotional Film, Available With or Without Commentary from Coppola; DVD Production Credits.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: A-/B+/B

Hmm. The story of an ambitious and garrulous innovator who tries to go against the established system with his own company but eventually fails due to pressures from big business. Is it possible for a biography of a different person to actually be an autobiography of a filmmaker?

That's what I wondered as I watched Tucker: The Man and His Dreams, a 1988 bio-pic from Francis Ford Coppola that seems to strongly reflect the life of the director himself. While the film appears to stick pretty closely to the factual details of Tucker's life and career, I couldn't help but think this was a thinly-disguised exploration of Coppola's feelings after the failure of his attempt to build his own studio, Zoetrope.

With or without knowledge of the parallels between filmmaker and subject, Tucker stands as one of Coppola's better pictures since his hey-day in the Seventies. Does it merit discussion as a classic alongside the first two Godfather films and Apocalypse Now? No, but it holds up extremely well against the rather erratic quality of the movies Coppola's helmed since 1979.

This isn't to say that his telling of the story of a wannabe car manufacturer doesn't feature its share of flaws. Foremost among the film's problems are the fact that Coppola doesn't create a very coherent narrative. It tends to jump from area to area without a lot of connection, and many subjects disappear along the way. One minute it looks like events will continue along one path, but then they veer in a different course for no apparent reason.

For example, at one point, Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges) meets with Howard Hughes (Dean Stockwell). Tucker had encountered difficulties obtaining enough steel to make cars due to obstructions bolstered by the large automakers. A maverick himself, Hughes attempts to help Tucker with some advice on how to obtain the necessary materials. However, after this scene, the subject vanished; we don't hear if Tucker tried to get the steel or what happened in that regard.

Tucker often jumped around in such a manner, but despite the potential to become messy and tangled, I thought the movie held together fairly well. Part of the reason for this stemmed from the terrific energy and visual flair we witness. Coppola and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro staged the movie in the style of the late Forties period and were especially influenced by the advertising of the era. The resulting production looked great and moved at a pace that made the contents more exciting and compelling; even though the progress didn't always make a lot of sense, the visuals helped carry the show.

As did the terrific performances we find. Bridges provides work of depth and passion as Tucker. It's no surprise that he can portray the chipper, eager-beaver side of the character, but he also is convincing as he gently depicts the frustration and angst experienced by Tucker. I really liked the subtlety in his acting, as Bridges never goes over the top in any manner; it's a nuanced and believable performance.

Also quite solid is Joan Allen as Tucker's wife Vera. In addition to the fact Allen looks much prettier than I ever remember seeing her, she makes an underwritten and underdeveloped role breathe and live. For the most part, Allen has little to do, but she seems real and somehow feels like a larger participant than the part warrants. Her best segment comes when she stands up to the big boys during a corporation board meeting; Allen doesn't try to play the scene with oversized bravado but she makes herself clear nonetheless.

(For the record, the historical materials show that the real-life Preston and Vera weren't quite as attractive as portrayed in the film. Vera seems especially exaggerated, as the actual woman was pretty tubby, unlike skinny and sexy Allen.)

Best of the acting bunch was Martin Landau's stunning turn as cynical business partner Abe Karatz. Landau takes a stereotypical character and makes him enormously real. As with the other actors, subtlety is the strongest aspect of his work. Karatz slowly but convincingly grows and develops through the movie, and Landau plays the part in such a genuine way that you don't even realize the changes occurred until they're done. It's a killer performance that stands out even amongst lots of terrific work by others, one for which Landau earned a much-deserved Oscar nomination. (He lost to Kevin Kline for A Fish Called Wanda.)

Tucker isn't a great movie, but it's definitely above average and it offers a compelling look at a man and his ambitions. Somehow the film is able to be both uplifting and depressing at the same time, largely through the complexity of the performances it includes.

The DVD:

Tucker: The Man and His Dream appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.90:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Before I discuss the quality of the picture, some comment on the aspect ratio should occur. From what I understand, Tucker used a standard 2.35:1 framing during its theatrical run. However, the folks at Zoetrope - mainly cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, it appears - seem to think that ratio eliminates too much of the usable space on the TV. As such, we get the "compromise" dimensions of 1.90:1 found on Tucker and Apocalypse Now.

While I won't argue that this framing is some sort of abomination, I must admit the logic of the decision escapes me because the altered dimensions are likely to bother everybody. Film fans who prefer the original aspect ratio will feel dissatisfied by the compromise, while letterboxing foes will hate it just as much as they'd dislike the accurate frame.

I don't find the altered framing objectionable, but I did discern quite a few instances in which it seemed obvious that material was being lost. Throughout the film, characters at the sides of the frames are cropped, and some writing gets chopped as well; for instance, when we see a shot in Bennington's office, the title on his door loses some letters and becomes basically illegible. I can't imagine Coppola and Storaro originally intended for us to lose this material, so I'm not sure why they're happy with it now.

Despite my displeasure over the altered framing, I found Tucker to provide a very strong image. Sharpness looked absolutely crisp and clear throughout the film, with virtually no signs of softness or fuzziness to be seen. Moiré effects appeared on occasion, and I also saw moderate artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. In regard to print flaws, I witnessed a couple of speckles and one or two bits of black grit, but that was it; I couldn't find any grain or more substantial defects like scratches, hairs, blotches or tears. (These comments don't apply to the footage in the film that either came from archival sources or was intentionally "mucked up" to resemble worn old shots.)

Tucker features a rather limited palette, one that provides very few instances of bright or vivid colors. Most of the movie uses a rather sepia-oriented appearance, and the DVD transmitted these tones capably. The hues always appeared clean and accurate, and they seemed perfectly solid. Also terrific were the black levels, which looked deep and rich throughout the film and presented fine contrast. Shadow detail was wonderfully clear and smooth, with appropriate opacity that never seemed excessively dark. Although I don't like the cropped aspect ratio, everything else about the image of Tucker was terrific.

Based on the fine track record of Paramount's DVD transfers, I wasn't surprised to find such an excellent picture. However, I was startled to get such a rich and sumptuous Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack from what I assumed would be a quiet, unassuming film. Actually, much of the movie did provide a relatively modest soundfield, since it's a character-driven film. However, the mix opened up the experience nicely and spread the atmosphere across the front channels effectively and convincingly. Segments in the factory and on the road came across particularly well, and even quiet scenes offered solid ambiance. Joe Jackson's score blasted effectively from all the channels, and the surrounds also offered very involving and engaging audio.

Sound quality seemed fine as well. Dialogue appeared crisp and natural and showed no signs of edginess or problems with intelligibility. Music was bright and brassy; highs seemed accurately and clearly reproduced, and some moderate but solid bass appeared as well. Effects also were clean and realistic, and they packed a modest punch at times; in scenes such as those from World War II, driving and factory sets, and thunderstorms, the mix boasted a nicely dynamic presentation. Tucker won't replace Apocalypse Now as a killer soundtrack, but it made for a strong experience nonetheless.

Tucker packs in a few nice supplements, starting with the first-ever running audio commentary from Coppola. Like the film, his screen-specific track appeared somewhat choppy at times; Coppola flits from subject to subject without much apparent reason, and it doesn't follow a tremendously coherent path. The commentary also had more empty spots than I'd like.

Nonetheless, I found Coppola's track to provide a fairly satisfying experience because he touched on enough useful and interesting material to warrant my attention. Commentaries from legends like Coppola risk suffering from the high expectations of their audiences, but they also benefit from the simple fact that it's incredibly cool to hear such filmmakers discuss their work. Coppola gives us a pretty decent look at the film and what he attempted to do, and he remains fairly entertaining throughout the track. Here's hoping this is a dry run for commentaries to accompany eventual DVD releases of the Godfather films.

Tucker also includes a few video extras. We get "Under the Hood: Making Tucker", a newly-created documentary that cobbles together some interviews and other snippets from the period in which the film was done. We hear from Coppola, executive producer George Lucas, and a variety of actors such as Jeff Bridges, Martin Landau and Joan Allen in these 1988 interviews, and they are accompanied by some well-chosen shots taken during the production; I especially enjoyed being able to see the friendly interaction between Coppola and Lucas apparently shot during editing. Despite its brief length, the program offers a fine look at the movie and its creation and I really enjoyed it.

Also fun is "Tucker: The Man and the Car", a 14 minute and 50 second promotional film from 1947 made by Ira Magee. The making of this piece is covered to a small degree in Tucker; we occasionally see a fictionalized version of Magee called Stan (played by Don Novello) and his crew at work. The ad itself fits the exact format we'd expect from the era as it touts the innovative products made by Tucker and it also provides a modest look at his life.

This promo can be viewed with or without commentary from Coppola. His remarks make the cool historical feature even more interesting. Coppola relates additional details about Tucker and the era plus he talks about how "The Man and the Car" influenced parts of Tucker, and he even touches on some of his thoughts about what he originally wanted to do with the film. It's a nice addition to the DVD.

Some "DVD Production Credits" round out the extras. The lack of inclusion of the film's trailer seems a little odd, but since the rest of the package is pretty strong, I won't cry too much about this.

One exciting aspect of the Tucker DVD: for the first time I can recall, we get a Paramount DVD that doesn't stick those unskippable copyright warnings at the start of the disc. I realize these only last about 10 seconds, but I always found them - or any other truly unavoidable parts of DVDs - to be a nuisance. Kudos to Paramount for finally moving them elsewhere. (For the record, the warnings now appear after the end of the film; if you haven't hit "menu" prior to their appearance, you will be stuck with them until they're done.)

All in all, Tucker: The Man and His Dream provides a solidly entertaining and compelling look at a largely-forgotten automotive pioneer. Despite some flaws in its story-telling, the movie works due to a terrific sense of visual energy and some excellent acting. The DVD offers a terrific picture, surprisingly bold audio, and some fine extras. Tucker definitely merits your attention.

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