More influential than even the director's fans are willing to give it credit, Steven Spielberg's first theatrical feature exhibits many of the traits that would later become his signatures: a majestic sense of scope; a fleet-footed sense of technique with even the most mundane action sequences; a childlike, naïve sense of wonder; and, yes, an occasionally cloying sentimentality. The Sugarland Express merges the men-in-cars dynamics of Spielberg's breakthrough TV movie Duel with a ripped-from-the-headlines tale of two holy fools (played impressively but with just a little too much gusto by Goldie Hawn and William Atherton) who will stop at nothing to get their child back. Although the story verges on the melodramatic, what saves the film is Spielberg's sense of space, place, and mood. He's so completely tuned in with his characters' hopes and fears that he's able to convey their every feeling through the visuals, which -- as shot by master cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond -- are a mix of documentary-style observational shots, sweeping vistas, and absurdist car chases. With the notable exception of the film's de rigueur, early-'70s unhappy ending, many of Sugarland's story arcs, character quirks, and even camera placements can be traced through every subsequent Spielberg feature, from something as epic as Raiders of the Lost Ark to -- most obviously -- his 2002 fraud-on-the-run hit Catch Me if You Can.
by Michael Hastings review