Problem is his parents are fugitives doggedly pursued by the FBI for bombing a napalm laboratory as a protest against the Vietnam War. On the run for years, the family is constantly on the move and changing identities, thus making commitments of any sort impossible.
Understated yet intense and unnerving, this impressive film is shaded as few major studio films are. Danny's parents (played by Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti) are at once supportive and selfish, self-absorbed and nurturing. Though their characters are based on Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayres and Bernardine Dohrn, the movie isn't political itself, neither justifying nor admonishing the Pope's actions, in which a janitor was blinded and paralyzed. Rather, it's about an American family trying to live like other, ordinary American families while under unimaginably extreme, wearying conditions.
Foner's wise screenplay subverts preconceptions about the Pope family's life. In the opening scene Danny, returning home from school, catches sight of Feds watching his house, four agents in two generic sedans. So experienced are the Popes, Danny has taught the family dog, Jomo, to signal his kid brother (Jonas Abry) inside using simple codes, and within moments they meet their parents some blocks away and they hightail it to another state, eluding capture. However, in fleeing so quickly and efficiently, the Popes must abandon virtually everything save the clothes on their backs. Jomo, leash and all, is dumped on the side of the road. "Don't worry," unconvincingly assures the father, Arthur, "Somebody'll pick him up."
That's an important moment because movie audiences especially don't like to see bad things happen to cute animals. It immediately establishes that, however noble or criminal Arthur and Annie's actions years before might have been, or understandable their years of hiding might be, it comes at a relentlessly cruel price. The movie frequently surprises in other ways, too. When Annie briefly reunites with her long-estranged father (Steven Hill), he initially comes off as a typical, unforgiving rich capitalist incapable of empathy, exemplifying everything Annie has been rebelling against. Yet when she departs he, in the middle of a crowded Manhattan restaurant, breaks down emotionally. He truly loves his daughter after all.
The movie quickly establishes just how expert even the kids have become, forced to continually lie to all others they come in contact with. ("I'm good at lying," says Annie, as if it were admirable skill.) When classmate Lorna Phillips (Martha Plimpton, Phoenix's real-life girlfriend at the time), daughter of Danny's music teacher (Ed Crowley) takes an interest in Danny, he's friendly but rigidly circumspect and evasive not just about his past, but also his future. Which colleges is he applying to? Haven't decided yet.
Arthur, militant activist, runs a tight ship, drilling his kids on their new identities, which change every six months or so, but they've gotten so good at it little practice is necessary. He's controlling, at one point refusing to allow Danny to attend a "bourgeois" classical concert at the Phillips' home. But, having recently been told through the underground network that his mother, whom he hasn't seen in years, has died of cancer, Arthur also is compelled more than ever to keep his family together. All but broken, it's all that he has left.
When Danny invites Lorna to the family's private birthday party for Annie, both parents are impressed with Danny's girlfriend, and she with them. In another key scene they all join in singing along to a recording of James Taylor's "Fire and Rain," which visually resembles a similar sequence in Lawrence Kasdan's celebrated The Big Chill (1983). It's an amusing contrast, for in The Big Chill that film's liberals mostly surrendered their values long ago and embraced upwardly mobile materialism. In Running on Empty the same scene is but a fleeting respite from the very opposite kind of existence, in which sticking to one's values has resulted only in chaos and constant upheaval.
Ultimately, the movie asks whether parents have the right to drag their kids into terrible situations they own. The obvious answer is, of course, "no." And, yet, in the Popes' case, the alternative, letting Danny go, means letting go of him utterly and perhaps never seeing him again. The only other alternative is for the parents to turn themselves in, but long prison sentences are all but certain. The kids love their parents and have become accustomed to life on the run, though they obviously hate certain aspects of it. Doing it their whole lives, it's become routine. Arthur appears resigned to forever remain the fugitive, but Annie is tired of running and like Arthur is worried about her kids' future. What's the answer? Is there an answer?
Running on Empty poses many difficult questions and none have easy answers, but it does offer much insight with its honest portrayal of a family with parents alternately selfish and giving, of children wanting to please their parents yet confused by their actions and uncertain about own wants and needs.
Video & Audio
A pressed Warner Archive release, Running on Empty gets decent if not stellar Blu-ray treatment, this visually modest title in 1080p and 1.85:1 widescreen with DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. English SDH subtitles are offered and a trailer is the lone Extra Feature.
Exemplifying Sidney Lumet's sensitive, sensible handling of material and, so often the case with the director, boasting excellent performances, Running on Empty is Highly Recommended.