In 1974, Spielberg finally stepped out of television work and into the major leagues. His first theatrical feature had a good deal in common with Duel in that it is another wall-to-wall car chase, only this time the results were far more human.
Based on a true story, The Sugarland Express follows Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) and her husband Clovis (William Atherton), whom she convinces to walk away from the pre-release program after several years on a prison stretch from which he is about to be released. She’s desperate because their two-year old son Langdon has been taken by The State of Texas and has been given over to a foster family.
What follows is one damned thing after another. Clovis and Lou Jean steal a car and, in a bizarre twist, end up kidnapping a good-hearted young patrolman named Slide (Michael Sacks). Meanwhile the police don’t want to upset the couple since they have Slide at gunpoint. The two become national heroes to the public and prey for local gun-nuts.
It takes some time to sink in, but as your watch the film you get the feeling that the themes of The Sugarland Express are ahead of their time. The idea of two fugitives on the lam on a mission of mercy whose plight captivates the public is more current now then it was in 1974. Lou Jean and Clovis become darlings of the media even though what they’re doing is wreckless and unlawful.
For me, while it has noble intentions, it is problematic at a very base level. Yes, it’s based on a true story, but it asks us to accept fundamental flaws that keep us from really getting involved in the story. I suppose that when the movie was made, it was during a time when outlaws were seen by the public as heroes. The image of authority figures had been tainted by the police beatings of demonstrators in the 1960s and by a nationwide trucker strike in the early 70s. The Sugarland Express seems to be feeding that legacy, yet it fails to win us over because fundamentally we are not on the same page as the movie. Clovis and Lou Jean could easily have worked the system without going on the lam so their ill-advised decision keeps us at odds with their plight.
Plus, the chase goes on for days and days when in reality it might have gone on for maybe a day. By this point we’ve seen so many police dash-cam videos that let us know how the police work in this situation that it seems impossible that such a thing could drag on as long as it does. But, maybe that’s not the point, maybe this is supposed to be seen as an outlaw fantasy. I could buy that if it weren’t based on a true story. This is a technically good movie with an interesting premise that just never really grabs at the heartstrings it is reaching for.