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Everything they say we are, we are.
And we are very proud of ourselves."
--- The Jefferson Airplane
Wow... talk about a movie that would have a tough time in today's market. Make the wrong kind of joke for a Super Bowl TV spot and the social media horde will be breathing down your neck. Naomi Foner's Running on Empty is about a family on the lam, moving from town to town whenever they think the Feds might have picked up their trail. Now in their forties, the parents are militant radicals from the Nixon years, and had to go underground when a janitor was killed by one of their bombs. The couple chose their life and accepted the consequences, but where does that leave their growing children, who like them are forced to live like gypsies, under assumed names? This movie is basically about the 'what comes next?' chapter in the lives of former political public enemies like The Weather Underground. If half of America would still like to see Jane Fonda strung up by her thumbs, I'd think theaters showing Running on Empty would receive death threats.
Alert for the signs of F.B.I. surveillance, young Danny Pope (River Phoenix) alerts the rest of his family through pre-arranged signals. Annie and Arthur Pope (Christine Lahti & Judd Hirsch) abandon their jobs and belongings and take their boys Danny and Harry (Jonas) to a new state where they pick up new identities and new lives. 1 Arthur and Annie find off-the-books employment as a cook and a medical receptionist and the boys are enrolled in school with "previous transcripts on the way." We see the unusual preparations that must be made, with secret arrangements so that any family member can alert the others if they're found out; we also see that the family is supported to some degree by a network of post-radical (or still radical?) sympathizers, such as a doctor (David Marguiles) who tends to political fugitives. But the Popes are cut off from their own families; Annie's father (Steven Hill) can only see her in an extraordinary circumstance arranged by a third party. Even then he condemns her. Potential trouble comes when former comrade Gus Winant (L.M.Kit Carson) drops by assuming that the Popes are still on the radical warpath. He'd like to sleep with his old flame Annie, and is carrying guns in the assumption that Arthur will agree to rob a bank with him. But a more troubling problem is closer to home. Young Danny has inherited his mother's musical talent, and his teacher Mr. Phillips (Ed Crowley) is encouraging him to apply to Julliard in New York. Danny is also stuck on Phillips' teenage daughter Lorna (Martha Plimpton), a girl he might be ready to commit to. As far as Arthur is concerned, Danny can't do any of those things because his first loyalty is to help his family in the undercover life. Annie doesn't know what to do. If she leaves her son behind, she may never see him again.
Talk about an issue that divides Americans! Are you the kind that sympathizes with draft deserters that fled to Canada, or the kind that wants them to serve long terms in prison? The Popes aren't victims of injustice, at least not directly; they knew what they were doing when they went militant, and the death they caused can't be forgotten or chalked up to youthful idealism. The war ended and the militant resistance congealed into ugly holdouts or fanatics with a death wish, like the SLA. And there's no statute of limitations for armed insurrection. By now (2015) I think almost all of the radicals that went underground are accounted for. Some served prison and others got off because any attempt to prosecute them would reveal or publicize the government's own illegal doings. Running on Empty dramatizes what might have been reality for just a few of these 'outlaws in the eyes of America'. How many? Five families? Ten? Some female radicals reportedly found it easy to live undetected while still on various Most Wanted lists. Others found ways to turn themselves in, squared themselves with the authorities and re-commenced the scholarly lives they interrupted years before to oppose the government. 2
Running on Empty is a fascinating show, with a cast that clearly had to work hard to make their characters believable. Christine Lahti puts up with her bossy, security-minded husband, who himself gets drunk one night and starts shouting his real name loud enough to wake the neighbors. Judd Hirsch and director Lumet know that these can't be ordinary people, and doesn't try to make them Ozzie and Harriet types, somehow (sniff!) trapped by their youthful mistakes. No, they're still promoting various Union and social justice causes here and there, although Arthur must back away whenever he becomes visible enough to appear in a news photo. Every year they celebrate a birthday to Sam, the man they killed. It's not a joke, but a ritual so they won't forget their crime.
The center of the movie is the son played by the cult actor River Phoenix, who graduated briefly to good roles a couple years after his appearance as a space voyager in the fantasy film Explorers. Phoenix is excellent as Danny, a kid raised to never forget to let the radar down. The show begins with Danny detecting a plainclothes tail and executing what must be "escape plan 9". The family is out of town in a matter of minutes. Danny's a sensitive, smart guy. If he plays by the rules, must keep himself a complete mystery to his new girlfriend Lorna. The boy is committed to the protection of the family, but we feel the pull for him to go off on his own, where a real future awaits. In a way, it's not a wholly unique situation; it must happen whenever someone defies their family or religion to go their own way, or with a mate not part of the family tradition. When Danny takes the forbidden step of telling Lorna everything, the movie's tension level doubles. How many of us living normal lives (well, reasonably normal lives) could trust our sweethearts with such a volatile secret: "I and my whole family are fugitives from justice. Anybody helping us is a potential accomplice. Just by letting you know, I'm putting you in legal jeopardy. Will you turn me in, or become a criminal with me?"
With the dramatic and storytelling ace director Sidney Lumet in charge, all of the relationships seem credible, even when the flaky, reckless Gus Winant breezes through. The presumed former radical patriot is nothing but an outlaw bum. In a nice choice, Gus is played by L.M. Kit Carson, the original fake counterculture hero in the classic experimental faux-documentary David Holzman's Diary.
Sidney Lumet wrote that his movies Running on Empty and Daniel had the same theme: Who pays for the passion and commitment of the parents? This is a supremely even-handed and insightful drama. Lumet made a wide range of great entertainments, and also some of the best "New York Jewish Liberal Movies" ever.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Running on Empty is a good widescreen-enhanced encoding of this unique drama, with rich color and solid audio. Madonna is on the soundtrack for a scene in music class; the final James Taylor song Fire and Rain works extremely well in context.
The disc appears to be an upgrade improving on a flat DVD issued in 1999. It comes with English subtitles, which is not the norm for standard WAC releases.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Running on Empty DVD-R rates:
1. The Popes even abandon their faithful dog as they exit town, which is what made me think of the current non-controversy controversy over the . Blow people up, massacre hundreds with sniper rifles and all will call you noble. But if you know what's good for you, don't you DARE harm a cute dog.
2. I remember a major case that was closed in 2001. A woman radical who had evaded capture for thirty years finalized arrangements to turn herself in, after a delicate negotiation aimed at quietly running her through the legal system to let her go on with her life. (She reportedly had worked for years in a responsible and socially productive job, and was not personally responsible for any violent acts). I followed her story for a couple of days in the newspaper... and then 9/11 happened. In the storm of security-minded, pull-down-the-shutters-and-load-the-guns hysteria, she just disappeared from the media-scape. I don't have a clue what happened to her next, but the timing couldn't possibly have been worse for a former Enemy of the State.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
T'was Ever Thus.