The Sugarland Express (1974)
Written by Steven Spielberg, Hal Barwood, and Matthew Robbins
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg’s name has become associated with the transitory period in the late 1970s as the Hollywood system went from promoting bleak & introspective pictures to escapist suburban fantasy. In tandem with George Lucas, Spielberg’s work centered on childhood and wonder, pulling audiences into theaters with the promise of amazing sights to behold. However, Spielberg followed the trends before his catapult into a chronicler of Americana fantasia. The Sugarland Express fits right in with the other American movies of the time and showcases the director’s burgeoning style, particularly his choices in using the camera to tell his stories. The film exists as such a strange anomaly that begs the question as to why Spielberg made such a marked shift in his later work (the answer is money, yes, I know).
Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) comes to visit her incarcerated husband Clovis (William Atherton) at a transition facility for prisoners soon to be released. The news she brings is terrible; their son has been taken and put into foster care. Lou Jean convinces Clovis to don clothes she’s snuck in and escape with her when she leaves. He reluctantly agrees, and they convince an older couple they are friends of their son, another inmate, and hitch a ride. Unfortunately, the older couple drives so slowly that it causes a police officer, Harlin (Ben Johnson), to pull the car over. Lou Jean and Clovis mistake this as police coming to arrest them, kidnap Harlin, steal the car, and go on the run while still trying to get their son back.
As viewers, we understand that the couple is doomed as soon as Clovis leaves the prison facility. In America, you cannot be poor and circumvent the legal system. You can be rich and certainly do it, but poor/working class means you get ground under the boot. Taking Harlin hostage causes another sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach, damning the couple even further. While we don’t expect a Spielberg movie to end tragically, this one will not be as dark as other directors at the time. The journey becomes a kind of populist movement; as the couple’s story spreads across Texas, they begin to have people standing on the side of the road cheering them while a growing pack of police pursues them.
The final product is a strange mishmash of Spielberg’s sentimentality clashing with the film conventions of the time. We get many car crashes, a popular while simplistic trend that seemed to wow the masses. The director also can’t help but soften the image of brutalist cops framed as necessarily harsh yet noble heroes. Harlin is calm but hostile with Lou Jean and Clovis at first. Over time, they begin to bond, and Harlin even shares police radio code talk with Clovis, supporting their efforts. But not really; they must be punished because the law is so important, more important than humanity. Spielberg delivers a murder that we are meant to see as sad but inevitable.
Spielberg seems to have always been a right-wing reactionary, just a softer breed than Clint Eastwood or John Milius. Spielberg’s take on reactionary thought has been propping up idealized forms of institutions we encounter from childhood. This means the police are always portrayed as heroic. All of his protagonists exist in a hyper-individualist bootstraps paradigm; collectivism is never an option. The nuclear family is seen as the perfect form of community despite many knowing the truth is the contrary.
The most fantasist aspect of Spielberg’s filmmaking ideology is that healing is possible without breaking down the institutions responsible for the harm. Lou Jean and Clovis committed a robbery. There is never a detailed examination of why, but we can surmise it is connected to wealth inequality as the American economy tanked throughout the 1970s. Spielberg, like all reactionaries, believes this is the fault entirely of the individual actions of the couple. This is why he can present the police in such an idealized manner. There is nothing ultimately learned from The Sugarland Express. It has some pretty visual moments, but they adorn a completely hollow work disguised as something relevant to the cultural discourse of the time.