This film was finely constructed, with profound philosophical underpinnings. Maria Conchita Alonso plays a bus driver whose charges consist of a handful of "special" children. The film quickly establishes her deep, abiding concern and outright love for these children, through a series of broad strokes in the form of conversational breakfast sallies between her and her character's husband, played with sensitivity and majesty by Dennis Boutsikaris.
Then, without warning, comes the first surprise of the night (but by no means the last). It seems that, despite the fact that Maria obviously loves children and desperately wants one, she is unable to have one!
Without a pause to let the audience recover from this staggering revelation, the film's pace picks up even more. After a brilliant and tantalizingly brief interlude at the bus company (spiced by the salty humor which in other films seemed so cliched, but here radiates energy like fissionable material), we see Maria and her aide going to get her passengers. Her fierce caring is evident in every gesture and word as she straps each child into his/her seat, and then sits beside the newest addition, playfully chatting with both the child and parent. While, of course, in reality such attention to each child would result in a bus trip of several hours duration, we are caught up in the aura of warmth and love so carefully established.
While bathing in the glow thus created, the audience is subjected to yet another shock. A madman (who we saw briefly in a short previous scene, where he is conversing with a priest, thus quickly and efficiently establishing his insanity) gets on the bus, and lets Maria know that his bag is full of explosives, which he will set off with a detonator in his breast pocket, unless she does exactly as he tells her. When we find out that Maria's aide has diabetes, after being cruelly accused of drug abuse by the madman, pathos is thrown into the mix, sparking a conflagration on the screen.
To try to synopsize the film would be pointless, and, besides, would destroy the fun of each breathless chase and climax. However, there are other levels worth looking into here.
The film's symbolism was extremely subtle.
One of the children who is especially important in this regard is Benito. Obviously a reference to Mussolini, this child's preoccupation with progress has led him to playfully refer to the school to which he is being driven as "the moon." The film's clear delineation of the dangers posed to a peaceful fascism (Benito) by a dangerous and unregulated imperialist freedom (Michael Paul Chan's madman, complete with Napoleonic hand over left breast) is brilliant. And it is only through the careful ministrations of the patient Maria that a resolution can be reached and total calamity avoided.
In her noble efforts, Maria is aided by the brilliant maneuverings of the Dade County SWAT team, headed by Marcy Walker. Walker's characterization of the hard-bitten commander powered by a woman's heart was breathtaking in its simplicity and elegance. Using a swish of her long, blonde ponytail to punctuate her commands to her troops was a touch so authentic that one felt as though one had suddenly switched to a documentary. The realism just oozed from such riveting scenes as commander Marcy asking Maria's husband for background on Maria. She was speaking on a cellular phone from the back seat of a car packed with fellow SWATers and her negotiator, while speeding along in hot pursuit of the hijacked school bus. We cut to Maria's husband as his eyes unfocus and he looks nobly into the distance, saying, "Let me tell you a story about her..." The story he tells, heart-rending and tender, was sure to leave a tear in every eye, and even the determined SWAT commander Marcy is visibly moved, listening eagerly to what a less trained mind might regard as a rambling and inappropriate anecdote, given the fact that it is told in the midst of a harrowing chase.
But it is exactly this emphasis on the contradictions inherent in the most stressful situations that rings so true. Bruce Weitz's shattering portrayal of the negotiator shows more of this imbalance come to life, with his slow, patient delivery in crisis situations, and his surprise and dismay (and even bruised emotions) at the repeated abrupt terminations of his phone talks with the madman.
I don't have room here to do justice to the profundity of the film, nor to the philosophical paradoxes which are so adroitly weaved in and out of the story, creating a kaleidoscope of ethical warp and moral woof that, in the end, we recognize as being the reality surrounding us all.
Suffice to say, SUDDEN TERROR is a film which goes far beyond the expectations of any committed television viewer, and is a towering example of just exactly what made-for-TV movies are good for.