This will be the first in a series of semi-regular posts inspired by having had several versions of this conversation:
Me: Oh, film/ book/ singer is great!
Friend: Huh? Never heard of it/ them.
Me: Uh, well, it’s… trust me, it’s great. You have to watch/ read/ listen to it/ them.
Friend (unconvinced): Sure.
These posts are going tobe the long and eloquent explanation I can’t think up on the spur of the moment of why X is so great, in the hope that if I encourage more people to watch/ read/ listen to it, I’ll run into that disappointing ‘huh’ less often, because I won’t be alone in my love.
Sidney Lumet, who died in 2011, was the director of over fifty films. Including the idealistic jury-room drama 12 Angry Men, the media satire Network and the thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, together they depicted and analysed American society from the 1950s to the present. Running on Empty, released in 1988, is surprisingly little known, considering what a gem it is.
Running on Empty is the story of activist couple Arthur Pope (Judd Hirsh), raised by his communist parents to be at odds with capitalist society, and his wife Annie (Christine Lahti), a former music student from a wealthy family. In 1971 Arthur and Annie blew up a napalm lab in protest against the Vietnam war – a planned act of peaceful protest that accidentally blinded and paralysed a janitor.
Sixteen years later, they’re still on the run from the FBI, with their sons Danny (River Phoenix) and Harry (Jonas Abry). After spending their lives moving to another state and acquiring new identities whenever they’re tracked down, the family have grown to rely on each other at the expense of everything else, but this is threatened when they move to New Jersey under the names of Paul, Cynthia, Michael and Steve Manfield. Mr. Phillips (Ed Crowley), the music teacher at Danny’s new school, notices his musical talent and urges him to apply for college. Danny begins to dream of living a normal life, especially after he falls in love with Mr. Phillips’ rebellious daughter Lorna (Martha Plimpton), but knows that doing so would mean never seeing his family again.
Running on Empty‘s gently witty screenplay and captivating performances are never melodramatic, sentimental or obvious. It uses little moments – such as the lovely scene when Annie, about to go to work, says goodbye to Arthur while he’s shaving, and he kisses her, then wipes his shaving foam off her cheek – to illustrate deep emotion.
The acting is of the highest level possible, where the audience forgets that they’re watching a performance at all, because they could be spying on real people’s lives. Phoenix brilliantly conveys Danny’s adolescent turmoil, giving a frustrating glimpse of the years of great performances that were lost when the actor sadly died at the age of twenty-three. He has strong support from Hirsch, playing Arthur as a man whose determination to keep his family together at all costs borders on selfish and bullying, and Lahti, who depicts Annie as equally strong under the strain of their life, but more willing to accept that it must end. The exceptional talent of everyone involved makes Running on Empty a unique story that’s also an intelligent, subtle and tender exploration of some universal themes: how people make decisions and live with the consequences, the conflict between idealism and realism, and the way children eventually have to escape even the most loving families.