Running on Empty (1988)
★★★★ / ★★★★
During the Vietnam War, Annie (Christine Lahti) and Arthur (Judd Hirsch) bombed a military research facility that created napalm. They believed that by the time the bomb had exploded, the facility was empty. However, there was a janitor inside and he ended up blind and paralyzed. Annie and Arthur, with their two-year-old son, Danny, go on the run from the FBI. Sixteen years later, they are still fugitives, now a family of four, and have recently moved to New Jersey with new identities.
Written by Naomi Foner and directed by Sidney Lumet, “Running on Empty” is a coming-of-age film with plenty to say about family and responsibility–responsibility to each other and with oneself. It is an effective drama because the family, whose members genuinely love one another but are constantly on edge unmitigated by their unique situation, is on the verge of a potential separation for the sake a young man’s future.
Danny (River Phoenix) has an aptitude for music. After playing a piece on the piano for his music teacher, Mr. Phillips (Ed Crowley) is so impressed, he books his student an audition in Juilliard. And they want him. But there is a problem. Since the Pope family, known as the Manfields in New Jersey, has moved so often and had to change their names each time, Danny has no school record which is required for his admission.
The film is not blind to its characters’ realities and they are written smart. No judgment is placed on Annie and Arthur either as activists or radicals. They feel bad about the fact that they have ruined a man’s life because of their beliefs but their decision to bomb the research center is not given some sort of pat justification so we can root for them or like them more. Instead, the screenplay focuses on the home and how their bombing continues to change their children’s lives–oftentimes for the worse.
Annie and Arthur struggle to be good parents, taking whatever jobs they can, while keeping in mind that stability is something that they can never provide for their children. As a family, they must adapt quickly with the changes or risk going to jail. Sometimes it is scary, like how Danny and his little brother (Jonas Abry) attempt to evade the FBI in the beginning of the film and meet their parents at a designated spot if they happen to get compromised. And since it is a drama, there is no glamour in people constantly running from the law as, for example, what we expect from an action-thriller. The focus is on the pain in the attachments formed under threat of being broken in a moment’s notice.
A major subplot involves Danny falling for his music teacher’s plucky daughter, Lorna (Martha Plimpton), who has dreams of becoming a writer in New York City. She talks about her hopes for the future, going to college, and everything she is excited to accomplish. Danny listens in silence, head down, knowing that he, as long as he stays with his family, cannot share any of it with her. Nor does he have a chance of forging his own path. There is sadness there because, in a way, he has to choose between his family and his future.
The most moving scene is of Annie meeting her father (Steven Hill) in a French restaurant to ask if he might consider taking Danny so he can have a shot in leading a normal life. They have not seen each other in fourteen years. It is very moving because the reunion works as a foreshadowing in what Annie and Danny might end up having–secret meetings, unable to see each other for a very long time–if her father were to accept.
“Running on Empty” is elegant in construction plot-wise, the way it executes simple scenes, and the manner in which it highlights important yet understated emotions. Notice the scene when Danny and Lorna are at the beach. Lorna’s body tends to stay in one place, but Danny cannot help but lead them forward. With him, there is almost a subconscious discomfort in settling down.