They clearly didn't think it through, but they do it anyhow. They're both just 25, but they've served time, and now the state has carted off their baby boy and given him to a foster family. So she breaks him out of jail, and then they bumblingly commandeer a highway patrol car, accompanied by highway patrolman, and pilot a spectacle across Texas in an endeavor to reclaim their son. That's the narrative of Steven Spielberg's second film, for which he takes the vacant desert of his tense, spare debut and fills it with a Looney Tunes parade of used-car lots, drive-ins, diners and a detained, eccentric force. Indeed, all the engines drown out all the common sense. While it's derived from an actual event, like so many things in Texas, it doesn't seem that believable. It happened in 1969, and the young couple garnered a lot of support from the people along their path. More like Natural Born Killers than Bonnie & Clyde, the lovers on the lam find brief sanctuary from their Looney Tunes world by watching Looney Tunes in a camper.
Funny that Spielberg and Malick would be on the same thematic page now and twenty-five years later. Except here, the lateral-thinking young lovers should acknowledge, sure enough, that they can't expect to walk away from kidnapping a cop. The husband does understand, more or less, but he's intimidated by his wife and, as if she herself were the child, he would do nearly anything to pacify her. The wife, as played with an inspired vacuousness by Goldie Hawn, lives in the present tense despite that they're being pursued by roughly 200 police cars. She raids a gas station of trading stamps, then sifts through to see how many will get a bed for her boy, much like another young boy's compulsive collection of labels in Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can. Except the down-home American family that characterizes so much of Spielberg's ensuing work is but a feeble daydream here.
Indeed the chase is guided by another of Ben Johnson's cowboy father figures, a wholesome cop. He's never killed anyone and hopes to maintain this record. But close on his trail are a literal sea of local, county and state cops, ad hoc amateurs, even a couple of Louisiana troopers who came over for the thrill. And TV news mobile units permeate the convoy every chance they get, and things develop into a sort of spin-doctoring affair. Ultimately, the renegades and their captive grow less central than stopping the pageant and preserving the apparent dignity of the authorities.
The entire film is a protracted ride into John Ford's sunset, and knowing Spielberg's passion for Golden Age Hollywood cinema, I'm sure he drew some inspiration from Billy Wilder's 1951 film Ace in the Hole, in which a man is ensnared in a cave and the news coverage of the incident becomes expedient and manipulative. That movie was rooted in actual events, too. And, sure enough, that one was set in Texas, too. As the motorcade works across hundreds of miles of Lone Star en route to the Sugarland foster home, a sort of companionship develops between the trooper and the husband. The trooper has been on the force less than a year, but he's sensible enough to see that his captors don't want to kill anybody. There are moving moments in which the husband gathers how to speak in police radio terminology, and when the trooper clarifies the modus operandi behind expeditious pursuits.
If the film is ultimately minor Spielberg, that's since he gives more consideration to all those police cars and their collisions, and not as much to the behavior of his characters, which distinguishes his subsequent masterpiece Jaws. Here, in that film's predecessor, we become acquainted with its three main people just enough to wish we knew more. A celebration of dolly and zoom, the enjoyment instead comes from Vilmos Zsigmond's innumerable telephoto shots of cop cars. It's visually beautiful and relentlessly kinetic, screen movement being incessantly intermingled with by camera movement. And the movie has its moments, and when the escapees pass through Main Street and are offered help and donations by their recently acquired followers, we understand: That's the way fame works in America, no matter why you're famous.