A couple of jailbirds out to rescue their son from foster care panic and kidnap a highway patrolman after their ride is pulled over. This ill-advised abduction attracts a convoy of police cars, news trucks, and well-wishers, all following at a discreet distance. Steven Spielberg's first big screen feature is the sweetly naive tale of two parents, barely more than children themselves, in way over their heads. They contextualise their entire dilemma in purely emotional terms, logic doesn't even enter into it. Goldie Hawn's Lou Jean firmly believes this misadventure can have a positive outcome for her family - no-one has the heart to tell her otherwise.
The Sugarland Express offers several distinct modes of masculinity, ranging from a henpecked husband willing to risk grievous injury to placate his wife, to a paternal police Captain who prefers the softly softly approach. Ben Johnson's Captain Tanner feels especially notable, an old-timer who stays his hand, using his position to ensure the couple a mostly unmolested trip across Texas. Either unwilling to risk the life of the captured trooper, or secure in his judgement that these two offer no serious threat, he plays along, hoping against hope for a peaceful conclusion. This isn't just a sympathetic idea of a cop, it's mythic. Tanner indulges the Poplins because they're essentially good. He blows the tires out on a news van because they're parasites.