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Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“Don’t let the future pass you by”

Preston Tucker has become something of an American legend. This movie may help you understand that phenomenon. It will also give you a “peek behind the curtain” at what forces actually make things happen in the USA, as opposed to the mythic propaganda that was once the meat and potatoes of civics classes in government-run schools.

The movie begins with a public relations style film telling the story of Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges) and his attempt to make a combat car for the American forces in World War II. However, his car is rejected for the war effort, because it is too fast. The film switches to Tucker’s Michigan home. Tucker has a reasonably large family with his wife Vera (Joan Allen). They are all involved in his endeavor to produce a new automobile that is safe, fast and stylish.

In addition, Tucker gets help from a friend, Abe Karatz (Martin Landau) who has some connections in the business world. Abe helps him found a corporation to design, engineer and manufacture his new concept car. They make a request of the Feds to let them utilize a huge factory in Chicago which had been used to construct airplanes during the war. Abe is not optimistic about their chances: “Politics…, we got no chance.” Strangely, after a talk in which Tucker impugns the “big three” of Detroit auto manufacturing and castigates prior safety efforts, the Feds “give” him the huge factory on the condition that he has sufficient funding and can produce 50 cars one year after taking possession of the plant.

Tucker has also made some progress getting his ideas into the media milieu, with good consequences. One of those results is a young design engineer: Alex (Elias Koteas) who joins Tucker's team along with Eddie (Frederic Forrest) and Jimmy (Mako) among others. With Tucker and his son Junior (Christian Slater), the team races against the clock to produce a “prototype” made from used and specially machined parts.

They also find an “experienced executive,” Bennington (Dean Goodman), to head their corporation. Tucker informs his new corporate board that he is going to Washington DC to meet with Senator Homer Ferguson (Lloyd Bridges). Although Sen. Ferguson leaves the meeting early, in their brief exchange he gives plenty of thinly disguised threats warning Tucker to stay out of the automobile manufacturing business.

As the unveiling of Tucker’s prototype nears, although the problems of getting the car ready are not insignificant, they begin to pale in comparison to more political considerations, both externally and within Tucker’s own organization. While the corpocrats send Tucker on a national publicity tour, they remove the defining features from the design of Tucker’s new car and double the price. Vera Tucker confronts the board and is given a “stick to your knitting” treatment. In the post-war era, like today, the political-corporate system promotes its standard of mediocrity.

When it looks very dark: his board working against his design and Tucker not able to get the steel to produce his cars, he gets a call from Howard Hughes (Dean Stockwell), who gives him some advice on where to find what he needs. Hughes also warns him about the feds. With Hughes’ tips Tucker is able to overcome the obstacles and move forward.

If you saw and liked the recent Scorsese film based on parts of Howard Hughes’ life: The Aviator, I think you will also enjoy Tucker: The Man and His Dream. The movies share many common elements and show the nature of the current American economic system. Jeff Bridges does well playing American automobile entrepreneurs. Although Preston Tucker is more of an innovator, he is much like Bridges’ character in the recent movie Seabiscuit. Those who might think that the recent fondness for federal prosecution of successful business people is a new phenomenon will also learn from this film.

It has been a long time since most markets in America were really open to actual free enterprise. However, Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream shows a strong similarity to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead in where it looks for resolution and hope. If that “sleeping giant” ever wakes, the charlatans in government and corporate board rooms may face a day of reckoning. Movies like this one may help to arouse the slumbering titan.

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