The Super Bowl. A stadium full of excited fans. Unbeknownst to the fans, a sniper is in the stadium. When TV cameras catch a glimpse of him, they call in police. Now it’s up to police and SWAT to take the sniper down before he kills anybody in the stadium.
This is the plot of Two-Minute Warning, a novel, film, and television film. Within each of these mediums, the premise remains the same, but the plot and antagonist changed drastically based on the medium.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
George LaFountaine wrote the original novel 1975. The film version made the following year is the first of two adaptations of one of his book. The second one, Flashpoint (1984), focused on two border patrol agents find a long-buried jeep with a skeleton and a whole bunch of money inside.
One of the great joys of reading novels is not necessarily following the main storyline, but also hearing the backstories the author provides. When dramatized, most of these details tend to fall by the wayside as the film needs to focus on the most economical telling of its story.
In the book, the novel switches between three groups of people: the police, the fans, and the antagonist.
LaFountaine delves deep into the history of all his characters as well as giving them a role in United States history.
A great example of this is the character of “Graz” (short for Roman Grzeskowiak), the head of the SWAT team. The oldest member of the SWAT team, the 51-year-old helped develop SWAT after the Watts riots in 1966. Based on his experience, his viewpoint is that the only way to deal with these types of people is by force.
Another character introduced in the novel is Roy Sickles, a member of the police force who is at home when he gets the call about the sniper at the super bowl. He gets the call at home while watching the game with his family.
The book chooses to focus on a handful of Fans. Two of the most prominent are father Timothy Metcalfe and car dealer Steve D’Abruzzo. Metcalfe came to the game because one of the players went to school with him and game him a ticket. Steve D’Abruzzo is having an affair and has decided to attend the game with his mistress.
Women in the Story
A predominantly masculine story, the female characters serve as more of measurements of the male character’s masculinity and morality. Oftentimes, the book will describe women based on their sexual or personal relationships with men. The book describes how Roy Sickles makes love to his wife. At another point in the book, there’s a line that reads: “No sir, Steve D’Abruzzo knew how to treat women and leave them begging for more.” (130). The book’s view of women primarily revolves around how they make men feel.
In the book, chapters alternate between side characters and the young sniper, Norbert Baird. While demonstrating the achievements of characters, the book goes through every single one of Norbert’s disappointments that led to him doing this. This includes his father killing his dog and her litter of puppies, his brief friendships, and his terrible run-in with a group of black youths (in which Norbert uses the n word). The only time the audience ever sees him express joy is at his father’s funeral. The book also presents Norbert as having a love interest whose strict mother tore their relationship apart.
When Norbert gets killed at the end, the book presents it as a sad ending. The SWAT team realizes how young he is. Similarly, when Norbert dies, he is “just glad it’s over.” His life has been a disappointment from start to finish and now it is finally over.
The film basically takes the premise of the novel and some of the characters, but changes much of their backstory and all of their names. The adaptation also adds a few new characters. The best way to look at this film is probably as vehicle for star Charlton Heston and the supporting cast. Heston appeared in five disaster movies during this time.
At the time, the film was seen as a big money maker in the vain of other disaster films. The studio made disaster films of the 1970s largely resemble the Studio made horror films of today. They provided lots of cheap thrills with a cast that often included a few movie stars, a few TV stars, and a former Football players. They would place these actors in melodramatic stories.
Director Larry Peerce seems to fill the movie with people who have personal connections to each other. Peerce himself had worked with wife Marilyn Hassett, Beau Bridges, and Warren Miller (who plays the sniper) on his previous film The Other Side of the Mountain (1974). Warning composer Charles Fox received an Oscar nomination for a song in mountain. Bridges’ then wife Juli plays a pickpocket. The wife of the film’s other star John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands, plays the love interest of David Janssen.
Since Disaster films get complicated, the best way to explain them is to look at two with similar plots: The Towering Inferno (1974) and Jaws (1975). Both are stories about bureaucrats putting people’s lives in danger in order to keep an institution open.
‘The Towering Inferno’
The Towering Inferno focuses on a fire in a skyscraper. Builder James Duncan (William Holden) wants to keep the building open as long as possible, despite the fire. It’s also revealed that his son-in-law (Richard Chamberlain) changed the electrical wiring so they could make the building work.
With its star-studded cast, it resembles most disaster movies of the time. Besides the dangerous fire, the film also tends to focus on many smaller plots between the side characters. Half the characters seem to be engaging in sexual relationships with each other. The other half are colorful eccentrics that the film entertains the audience with before either killing them off or letting them live.
Like many films of its kind, it ends on a character giving a moralizing speech about the situation. In this case, a practical fire chief (Steve McQueen) lectures a hot shot architect (Paul Newman) about consulting him about how to build such structures and make them safe for firemen and civilians.
Jaws tells a similar story, but swaps out the fire for a shark. In the story, a dangerous shark has eaten a teenager on Amity Island. Unfortunately, the mayor (Murray Hamilton) still wants to keep the beaches open. Now Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) has to go out and save the population of the island. Joined by Quint (Robert Shaw) and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss).
The movie Jaws adapted the Peter Benchley novel with a few major changes. Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Carl Gottlieb (who had worked on Sitcoms) removed many of the novel’s Soap operatic sub-plots in favor of more humorous and likeable characters. These include an adulterous affair between Matt Hooper and Brody’s wife (Lorraine Gary) and the mayor being in debt to the Mafia. The mayor subplot explains why he wants to keep the beaches open.
The movie also does not end on speech about how the horrible mayor should have closed the beach for the salt of the earth characters of the story. Instead, it ends with Brody and Hooper floating back to shore together.
Two-Minute Warning has similarities to both. Like The Towering Inferno, it has two male leads (Charlton Heston and John Cassavetes) fighting for the fate of a group of people. It also borrows many of the characterizations and ends on a speech about the morality of the situation. Similar to Jaws, it focuses on a mostly faceless antagonist that the audience barely sees fully. The film also features the first victim from Jaws, Susan Backlinie, in a brief appearance. In Jaws, she played a woman who swims naked and gets eaten by the shark. She also plays a character who is somewhat sexualized in this.
With the adaptation, many characterizations remain intact from the book, while others are watered down or heightened.
The book keeps most of the police characters while changing their names. The most significant change it makes is combining the characters of SWAT leader Graz and Roy Sickles together into one character, Chris Button (played by Cassavetes). Like Graz, he is the head of the SWAT unit. However, he seems to have a family closer to Roy Sickles.
Unlike the book, the movie tends to focus on civilians more. In particular, couples and families tend to round out the cast. This includes a seemingly normal family man who has lost his job (Beau Bridges), an older couple who is at a cross roads in their relationship (David Janssen and Gena Rowlands), and a woman (Marilyn Hassett) going on a blind date with one man (Jon Korkes), but finding herself attracted to a doctor (David Groh) at the game.
While Jaws got rid of the many Soap Operatic plots of the book, Two-Minute Warning makes them even more melodramatic. For example, in the book, the priest attends the game because one of the players is an old college roommate. However, the film delves deeper into other characterizations. The football player Charlie Tyler (former football player Joe Kapp) is a man literally on his last legs. The film also seats him next to the doomed character of Stu Sandman (Jack Klugman), a gambler who needs to get some money by the end of the day or a powerful gangster will kill him.
Similarly, the character of out of town car dealer Steve D’Abruzzo gets a significant change from the book. In the book, he is having an affair with a “friend” he took the game. The movie has Steve (played by Janssen) as one half of a middle-aged couple who has come to a crossroads. Like in the book, Steve gets shot, but not before proposing to his girlfriend Janet.
Women in the Story
Like the book, women seem to exist in the movie primarily to either prop up the male characters. Charlie Tyler’s intro has him getting out of bed with a naked woman who still wants to have sex with him. Sandman sits next to a busty woman who is eating strawberries. Throughout the movie, David Janssen acts jealous of Gena Rowlands receiving attention from other men. Marilyn Hassett’s role has her spend most of the movie smiling at a man.
In the biggest change from the novel, the film chooses not to portray the sniper beyond his function in the story. This is a choice that seems inspired by the success of Jaws. It is much different than other disaster movies before it. Airport (1970) featured a plot about a terrorist (Van Heflin) trying to blow up a plane and goes into depth about who he is. Heston’s previous movie Skyjacked (1972) features a detailed history of its hijacker (James Brolin).
The film portrays its antagonist like the shark in Jaws, complete with a menacing sound track like in that film. However, Jaws has the shark attack somebody every time its perspective appears on screen with menacing music, the perspective of the sniper revolves around him doing mostly mundane tasks. While the film opens with the sniper shooting a bicyclist, most of his scenes have to do with him such tasks as walking around, setting up, and eating a candy bar while ominous music plays.
In Two-Minute Warning, the main problem is with the “kook.” He can’t be reasoned with or understood, only killed. In the production notes, Charlton Heston calls the character “a crazy.” The film has his character calling the character a “freak.”
Not only does the film jettison any character development for the antagonist, it also scoffs at the notion of understanding such a character. The final speech of the film has leader of SWAT Chris Button say that his backstory does not matter. The press will dig up his backstory and make a point that the police did not have to kill him. However, the audience knows better. They also put this speech into a mouth of a character who has a loving family.
This characterization did become a point of contention among some critic. When seeing the film, Roger Ebert overheard a viewer describe it as a story about “individual violence versus institutional violence.” Ebert saw the film as a cynical product to making money and pointed to the lack of characterization as an example of the film’s lack of interest in such a character outside of entertaining the audience.
The TV film from 1978 is not another adaptation in the traditional sense, but a re-edit of the theatrical film that changes the story even more. Besides a lot of the blood and gore being jettisoned, the new film creates a new story that can run smoothly on network television of the time period. Director Larry Peerce disowned the television version and received the name “Gene Palmer” as a credit.
With network television of the era, producers had to take into accounts the amount of sex, violence, and swearing that could be in the film. They also had to take commercial breaks into consideration. With the different aspect ratio, the TV version also features many shots that are much closer than they are in the movie.
The TV movie keeps some characters while jettisoning others. In particular, it cuts out football player Charlie Tyler, while cutting down most of the other stories to very basics. In this version, Beau Bridges losing his job is cut for time. The film also cuts all characters who get shot in favor of lights and seats getting shot instead.
The new movie also adds a story about an art heist. Instead of having the sniper kill people because he is crazy, the film has the character create a distraction for the heist. The heist plot focuses on the mistress (Joanna Pettet) of a wealthy art collector (William Prince), who works with a group of Vietnam vets and an art professor (Rossano Brazzi) to steal the works of Rembrandt from her lover.
Die Hard would use this same plot device a decade later to take the edge off its terrorist villains. However, in Die Hard, the film lets the audience discover the heist. In the TV film, the characters tell the plot to the audience over many conversations.
Women in the Story
In this version of the story, it seems that every character is attracted to the mistress except for the gunman. The art collector loves her and leaves his collection for her in his will. She tries to call off the art heist, but it goes off anyway. However, the art thieves get arrested when they accidentally hit a pedestrian while trying to escape. The mistress drives off into the sunset with the businessman, now the sole owner of his collection when he dies.
In this version of the story, the sniper works as part of a heist. This time, he is portrayed as a troubled Vietnam veteran who drinks too much. The audience gets to see another version of the character than the previous versions.
While making the sniper character more relatable, they also make the character of SWAT leader Chris Button less relatable. In the original, Chris Button had a family. This version does not show any such family. When Button also calls the sniper a “kook,” the audience knows that it is not true because of what has come before it.
Like the theatrical cut, SWAT does kill him. However, this time Heston delivers the speech that Cassavetes delivers in the original. This is perhaps part of making Heston stand out as the star of this version.
In the course of three adaptations, the story of Two-Minute Warning changes from one about a troubled man becoming a sniper at the super Bowl into a heist next to the Super Bowl.
In the TV film, perhaps the most indicative sign of change is a small detail: men playing chess in a van. Whenever somebody plays a game in a movie, it often has to do with the filmmaker tipping off the audience that the story is a game. Throughout the versions, the story became less serious until it was less about any sort of commentary and more about entertainment.