After setting up Goldie Hawn and William Atherton as the protagonists, Sugarland Express takes about an hour to get back to them. Hawn and Atherton have an amazing setup–he’s about to get out of prison and has been transferred to pre-release. Hawn comes to visiting day but to break him out. She’s just gotten out of jail and the state took away their son. So she wants Atherton to come with her to get him.
They make it out all right only to end up kidnapping a state trooper (Michael Sacks) within the first twenty or so minutes. There’s a big car chase sequence–pretty much the only one of the movie, which eventually has about 80 cars in a shot–where Hawn and Atherton get the upperhand. Well, they bumble into it. But then Sacks isn’t really particularly with it either. Once the cops figure out what’s happened, they call in the boss, Ben Johnson.
So until Johnson gets into the movie, it seems like Sacks is going to take over as protagonist. But then he doesn’t. Because Johnson dominates the film. Intentionally. Director Spielberg, screenwriters Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, they pull back from Hawn and Atherton’s story and fill it out with the ginormous police response. It’s the kidnappers followed down the highway by a line of a dozen cop cars. It’s quirky. Johnson takes an immediate liking to Hawn after she grins at him through the back window. Because Johnson doesn’t want to be a hard ass, he wants to help these crazy kids (they’re supposed to be twenty-five but he’s a softey), and he’s never killed a man in ninteen years on the Texas highway patrol.
The movie is based on events from 1969. Texas in 1969. So that character motivation raises all sorts of possibilites for further discussion of portrayal of law enforcement in popular culture. But for the purposes of Sugarland, Johnson’s an old softey and he wants to help all these kids–including Sacks–get out of the situation okay.
Eventually they have to bed down for the night–cops and kidnappers–and that break from the Express is when the film catches back up with Hawn and Atherton. There hasn’t been time for them to get a moment. And it’s kind of when it becomes clear how far Spielberg and the writers want to keep the viewers from Hawn and Atherton. They don’t want to dig too deep. Just like they don’t want to dig too deep on Sacks, who Stockholms way too fast to be an effective state trooper unless they’re really all supposed to be sensitive doofuses (no other cop in the movie is sensitive–just Sacks and Johnson–the rest are gun-happy). And they don’t want to dig too deep on Johnson, because, well, he’s in his late fifties and it’s a still Goldie Hawn movie, after all.
So there’s not going to be character exploration. There’s also not going to be much more comedy; Atherton is realizing the gravity of the situation. The adrenaline has worn off and he sees his death. Meanwhile Hawn’s convinced because they’re famous–oh, yeah, they’re folk heroes–they’re going to get their baby back. Only they can’t really talk about it because, well, they aren’t bright. The moments when you do actually find something out about Atherton and Hawn–about their backgrounds or situation–it’s a sympathy moment. Not just for the audience, but for Johnson and Sacks too. Because even though Sacks is a doofus, he’s not a dope like Atherton or Hawn.
Then there’s the next morning there’s the next big action sequence–involving the kidnappers, there’s a big car crash without them that Spielberg plays without absurdity but still want some humor in the danger–and it’s a doozy. Texas gun nut vigilantes go out after the kidnappers. They shoot up a used car lot, with Hawn trapped in a camper while Atherton goes after an escaping Sacks through the lot. It’s intense. And sets the direction of the rest of the film. The energy of it too. The first half has a lot of great editing from Edward M. Abroms and Verna Fields and it’s fast but it’s not hurried. In the second half, with Atherton deciding to officially offer to trade Sacks for the baby, the Express–save narrative-driven slowdowns–is accelerating all the way to the finish. Spielberg and the screenwriters are intentional with how they use their time.
The script from Barwood and Robbins is precise. Spielberg’s direction is always in rhythm with it, even when he’s slowing down or speeding up. He gets flashy at times, but always to further the story–or affect its pacing. And there’s this patient, lush Vilmos Zsigmond photography so it’s never too flashy. Then there’s that great editing. And the effective (and simple) John Williams score, which enthusiastically promises hope then takes it away. It’s a technical feat.
Of the performances, Atherton and Johnson stand out. Sacks and Hawn have a lot less to do. Well, Hawn has more to do occasionally but it’s really just more screentime. The first half of the film is Atherton in a panic, the second half is Hawn in a different one. Again, Spielberg and the screenwriters stay back from the characters. They’re caricatures the actors have to fill out, because if you fill them out too much in the script, then Sugarland can’t be Sugarland. Part of the film’s charm is Spielberg and the screenwriters ostensibly keeping things light. Because it’s a Goldie Hawn movie and she’s so cute and bubbly. Only there’s a sadness around the cute and bubbly. Because it’s a tragedy, not a comedy. It’s a tragedy with some funny parts and some exciting parts. But it’s such a tragedy instead of trying to cover all the factors, the filmmakers just implied them and the actors informed them through their passive performances. Because it’s a lot of Hawn, Atherton, Sacks, and Johnson in close-up. There’s a lot of time with these characters together. And they have to develop together. And they do. The filmmakers are able to bake in all the sadness without doing any excess exposition dumps.
Sugarland’s great. It all works out.
Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, based on a story by Spielberg, Barwood, and Robbins; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Edward M. Abroms and Verna Fields; music by John Williams; produced by David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Goldie Hawn (Lou Jean), William Atherton (Clovis), Michael Sacks (Slide), Ben Johnson (Captain Tanner), Gregory Walcott (Mashburn), Louise Latham (Mrs. Looby), Jessie Lee Fulton (Mrs. Nocker), Gordon Hurst (Hubie Nocker), and A.L. Camp (Mr. Alvin T. Nocker).