Running On Empty



Running on Empty (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1988)

but I’ve done three movies, Daniel, Running on Empty, and Family Business, that are thematically the same thing—the cost that others pay for one’s passions—and I only recognized this afterwards…. Any deep emotional commitment on the part of the parents is going to cost something… not just to the parents but also almost always to the children.” – Sidney Lumet

“There is a freedom in being able to delete the digital past. Or indeed in growing up without one. The right to be forgotten is actually about the right to have a past that is not always perfect: a life, in other words.”Suzanne Moore on Europe’s “Right to be forgotten” law

“It’s not anger, it’s wit” – Lorna (played by Martha Plimpton)

It’s easy to forget how truly insane the 1960s were. So much of the shocking, incendiary history of that time period has been sanitized by hippie outfits and Time Life music compilations. But it’s helpful to remember, especially in times that seem equally as chaotic, that America has dealt with extremism and social upheaval before. Yes, in the 60s Bewitched was on TV, but at the same time, political figures were routinely being assassinated, people were lighting themselves on fire outside of government buildings, and domestic terrorism became a tool of leftist groups like the weather underground.

Which brings us to the film, Running on Empty, directed by Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Network, 12 Angry Men), and released in 1988. The film tells the story of Arthur (Judd Hirsch) and Annie Pope (Christine Lahti), two counter culture extremists who were involved in a weather underground-type group. They’ve been on the run ever since bombing a weapons plant, and inadvertently injuring an off duty janitor, in the late 1960s. We catch up with the Pope’s in the late 80s. By now, they’ve had two children, Danny (River Phoenix) and Harry (Jonas Abry), the Vietnam war has ended, and Regan is in office. Yet, because of their radical past, the family is living “underground”, constantly moving from town to town, and assuming new identities, in order to evade the FBI.

Despite that hooky summary, the film is purposefully not a thriller. It’s a coming of age drama told almost entirely from the perspective of the Pope’s oldest son, Danny (River Phoenix). Danny wants to go to college, but he doesn’t have any records. He falls in love with a girl at school, but she knows him by a fake identity. He’s got all the desires and contradictions of a “regular” high schooler, but his family also happens to be the subject a two-decade long manhunt.

Yet, what’s remarkable is how unradical Running on Empty portrays the Pope’s daily life. They aren’t polishing up their guns and waving around manifestos (…gah, when was the last time you read a good manifesto….). They’re making spaghetti sauce and watching baseball games. The level of domesticity that the family has achieved is mirrored in the camera work. Running on Empty is shot like a domestic drama, almost Playhouse 90 style (a series Lumet contributed to back in the 50s). The film stays firmly rooted in the family and it’s present. There is no b plot about the FBI, there is no flashback to the parents’ radical days. But, because right beneath the surface is this dangerous, elicit backstory, all the scenes of the family going to work, arguing, or cleaning the house, have this pulsing undercurrent of danger.

(…meanwhile, one practical concern I had, that goes completely undiscussed in the film, is how do people “underground” save for retirement?? You’re outside the system, so you can’t rely on Social Security or set up a 401K. Does the “underground” budget for its members when they turn 65? I guess they could just sock away money from odd jobs, but then they’re missing out on the interest…)

Almost across the board, the performances in Running on Empty are excellent, with the stand out being River Phoenix (who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar). Here, he’s is at his most child-like— running his hand across the fencing of a bridge, throwing his apple into the nearby woods when he’s done with it, or sprinting along the beach and stopping, suddenly, for no reason at all. He perfectly embodies the juxtaposition of being grown up enough to know how precarious his situation is, but still young enough to put it out of his mind.

Equally as interesting is Martha Plimpton as Lorna, Danny’s love interest. She has this adult weariness mixed with inherent trustworthiness, that make her pitch-perfect in the role. She controls every scene, and the writing for her is uncommonly mature for a high school character. She doesn’t fall into hysterics upon learning Danny’s true identity. She doesn’t force the issue when she wants him to stay. She has this ineffable quality where you want to tell her your secrets, no matter the consequences. And the chemistry between Phoenix and Plimpton is the highlight of the film (apparently they dated in real life too).

As Danny and Martha are building their relationship, there’s a scene where he invites her over to celebrate his mom’s birthday (I guess one side effect of living underground is that you don’t realize it’s weird to turn your mom’s birthday into a date). At the end of the night, the entire family and Lorna get up and dance to James Taylor’s Fire and Rain. On paper, it should have all the potholes of pure Iowa corn. There’s no reason it should work. But honestly, mostly due to the cast, it does. When the first few notes crackle in over the stereo, everyone in the audience got a little teary.

The rest of the cast and crew are a who’s who of counter-culture New York acting icons. Naomi Foner (the screenwriter and nominee for Best Original Screenplay) is the mother of Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal. Griffin Dunne (one of the producers) is the nephew of John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion. Amy Robinson (another producer) got her start as the female lead in Mean Streets and went on to have a massive career, producing everything from After Hours to Julie and Julia. 

All that being said, there are still a couple of scenes that hit cringe button, like one where Danny attends his first music class. The teacher plays two records, back to back, one is pop (Madonna?), the other classical (Beethoven). Upon hearing the first record, some of the kids in the class get up and dance. Everyone in the class starts clapping to the beat. It’s the sort of movie version of high school that has never existed. Where the kids are all paying attention, and education is transmitted through stunty “lessons”.

Not to mention, a scene where Danny climbs out of a tree from Lorna’s bedroom is bottom of the sitcom barrel. You almost expect him to turn to the camera and bite into a big slice of pepperoni pizza. It’s hard to tell if these scenes are merely the kind of lame thing that all movies have, especially movies from 30 years ago? Or, were they concessions to the studio? Or, as I’m inclined to believe, were they a subversive commentary on familiar tropes? By undercutting even the most winsome, wholesome Hollywood imagery with a legacy of domestic terrorism, was it Lumet’s way of heightening Running on Empty‘s subversiveness?

It’s exceedingly rare to see a film about the children of people on the lam. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any. There are tons of films where the characters are on the run from the police (Bonnie and Clyde, They Live By Night, Drugstore Cowboy, etc.). But it’s a small revolution to change the subject to a family, and then tell the story through the perspective of a child, who had no role in the crime, living with the consequences of a crime.

There’s also the psychic reversal Running on Empty does to the teen rebel drama. So many “rebellion films” deal with a teen who wants to escape the real or perceived oppression of society (think Rebel without a Cause). Almost never have I seen a film where the main rebellion comes from a child who wants to join society. In Running on Empty the parents are the counter culture, the children are the stiffs. It’s rebellion by maturation. Rebellion by going straight. In fact, one could almost see Danny as a direct response to Jim Stark (James Dean in Rebel). Both are young, handsome, sensitive dreamers. But for one the dream is leaving school, skipping the job, and being an outcast — for the other, the dream is having a job, a school, and a structure.

And in the end, that’s what Danny gets. The film ends with the FBI showing up again, but this time, instead of fleeing with the whole family, the Pope’s decide to leave Danny behind and let him start a new life. As much as they want to remain together, they begrudgingly accept his new path. It’s a bittersweet moment, but an idea worth remembering: you don’t ever forget the past, but you don’t have to repeat it, either.



Random Notes:

  • Running on Empty does the classic movie thing where Judd Hirsch, in order to conceal his identity, shaves his beard. It’s common for men on the run in movies to either shave or grow a beard (the classic example being Harrison Ford in The Fugitive). It’s why I’ll always have a beard, so if I’m ever framed, I have at least one immediate way to make myself  “unrecognizable”.
  • Oddly enough, the song Running on Empty by Jackson Browne never appears in the film…not sure why. It came out 1977, so ten years prior. Maybe they couldn’t get the rights? Maybe Lumet couldn’t stand Jackson Browne’s haircut?

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