"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Monday, March 16, 2009

Running on Empty

Imagine the scene: a teenager is playing baseball. It's his turn up at bat and he promptly strikes out. He dejectedly leaves the diamond on his bike — presumably bound for home. On the way, he spots two cars with suspicious looking men in them. The boy quickly ditches the cars and finds a younger boy by giving a dog his shoe. It does not take long to deduce that they are brothers. No explanation is given for this rather odd behavior. However, we soon find out that the boy's name is Danny Pope (River Phoenix) and that his parents, Arthur (Judd Hirsch) and Annie (Christine Lahti) are 1960s subversives who went underground after claiming responsibility for bombing a military research lab that was developing napalm in 1971. The resulting action accidentally blinded a janitor which caused the Popes to become fugitives, roaming the country like gypsies, always trying to stay one step ahead of the law. Arthur and Annie made a choice a long time ago to live this kind of life. But their two sons are also stuck with this choice and its consequences. As Annie tells her husband at one point, "Look at what we're doing to these kids. They've been running their whole lives like criminals and they didn't do anything."

And so begins Running on Empty (1988), a film about choices: how important they can be and how they affect others. As the film progresses, Danny, the eldest son, is on the verge of being accepted to college. He is a gifted musician who discovers that he has a real chance at getting accepted into Juilliard. To make matters more complicated, he falls in love for the first time with Lorna (Martha Plimpton), a smart, independent girl who shows Danny that he must develop a life of his own. As a result Danny must make the toughest choice of his life. Does he stay with his family, thereby sacrificing any chance for a life of his own, or does he take advantage of a shot at a real life and run the risk of never seeing his family again? The dramatic tension central to the film is the choice Danny must make and how it will affect those around him.
The film’s producers Amy Robinson and Griffin Dunne first thought of the idea for Running on Empty in the early 1980s after reading a newspaper story on the arrest of two underground radicals in upstate New York. In 1983, Lorimar commissioned a screenplay. Screenwriter Naomi Foner was brought on board to work on the script and decided to tell the family’s story from the children’s’ perspective. She had known radicals who had gone underground and interviewed people who had lived that way, incorporating details from their lives into the script. Foner was also inspired by several women who were members of Students for a Democratic Society, now living in hiding with their children. Lorimar decided not to go ahead with production because the executives who had originally approved the project had been replaced.

Director Sidney Lumet read Foner’s script and decided to exercise an option he had as part of his contract with Lorimar that allowed him to produce one film of his choosing. Actress Christine Lahti was cast first and she had participated in the student unrest at the University of Michigan in her youth. She did a lot of reading as research and was fascinated by the support system that provides people who have gone underground with money, cheap housing and fake IDs. River Phoenix and Martha Plimpton were cast next.

Running on Empty is a film that refuses to restrict itself to a specific genre. As Lumet, points out, "it's not exactly a coming-of-age story. Danny, the older son, is already mature and knowledgeable. It's more about the consequences of our actions and the dynamics of what makes a family. These people's lives are a mess. The children are the only success they've got." If anything, Running on Empty is also a sobering look at the darker side of the '60s. Some people really wanted to change the world and found out that their actions, no matter how noble they seemed, had their consequences as well. The film shows how two people are forced to live with the actions of their past and how it has changed their lives and the lives of their children forever. However, the film ultimately focuses on Danny and his attempts to break free of his parents' problems and lead a normal life.

Danny's story is so powerful and interesting because of the intelligent screenplay by Naomi Foner and the performance by River Phoenix. Foner's script contains realistic dialogue so natural that it could have been plucked from real life. Her characters are not hackneyed stereotypes but engaging three-dimensional human beings that you come to love and care about over the course of the film. And this reaction is due in large part to the actors themselves: veterans like Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti and younger thespians like Phoenix and Martha Plimpton deliver outstanding performances.
The moments between Phoenix and Plimpton, in particular, are charged with emotion and intensity that has a real ring of honesty to it. There is a scene where Danny comes to see Lorna in the middle of the night and he sneaks her out of the house in order to tell her who he really is and why he is so evasive about revealing personal information. It is a warm, intimate moment that feels completely authentic. The way the two actors interact with each other is touching and very emotional because it seems so believable. Others must have thought so as well. Phoenix, only 17 years old at the time, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Danny as well as being named Best Supporting Actor by the National Board of Review and being nominated for a Golden Globe. It was a real testament to his acting ability and is without a doubt one of his best performances, equaled only by his work in Stand by Me (1986) and My Own Private Idaho (1991).

The film was barely given a decent theatrical release and was fairly well-received by critics at the time. Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and called it "one of the best films of the year." In her review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "The courtship between Danny and Lorna is staged especially disarmingly, with Mr. Phoenix and Miss Plimpton conveying a sweet, serious and believably gradual attraction.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, "A curious mix of soap opera and social history, Lumet's film shouldn't work, yet its fusion of oddly matched parts proves emotionally overpowering. You have to be pretty tough to resist it.” However, Hal Hinson, in his review for the Washington Post wrote, “Running on Empty doesn't make much sense for the title of the movie ... but it does work as a description of the director. Sidney Lumet may be the laziest major director working today.”

Running on Empty is about making the kind of decisions that alter one's life. Danny's parents made a decision a long time ago and now it is their son's turn. What is so interesting about a film like this is that it explores the ramifications of these kinds of important decisions and how people live with the results. This film refuses to depict its characters in any kind of cliché manner, instead opting for a kind of realism that has a ring of honesty to it. After watching this film, you feel like you have just looked through the window into a very special world with characters that you grow to care about and admire. It is the kind of film that can affect you in a meaningful, emotional way that resonates long after the images fade from the screen. For all the seriousness of its subject matter, Running on Empty is a very entertaining film that refuses to give any easy answers to the complex problems it raises.


Deans, Laurie. “Following Her Heart is Lahti’s Style.” Globe & Mail. September 9, 1988.

Harmetz, Aljean. “River Phoenix Ranks Acting Below Animal Rights & Music.” The New York Times. January 5, 1989.

Kerr, Peter. “Campus Radicals Count the Cost of Commitment.” The New York Times. September 4, 1988.


  1. I forgot about this film. It's been a long time since I've seen it... Definitely going to have to revisit it now...

  2. Yeah, it is one of those under-rated, under-appreciated films of the 1980s but definitely worth checking out again... if only to see what a brilliant actor River Phoenix was, even at that young age.

  3. Hey J.D. Great post. I really loved this film when I saw it. I had pretty much forgotten about it over the years. It was a wonderful film. River Phoenix was incredible in it. It's such a shame that his life was cut so short.

  4. Viewed this film many times on HBO in the late '80s and early '90s. It's a fine film though the "soap opera fused with social commentary" observation is an apt one. It's too bad there isn't a widescreen DVD, which would certainly make the film seem like less of a television production.

    Phoenix and Plimpton are marvelous and, to beat a dead horse, I shudder to think of who would play their parts should the film have been made today. If he was several years younger, Naomi Foner's son Jake Gyllenhaal could fill in nicely, but I don't who could step in for Martha...Maggie Gyllenhaal? :-).

    Phoenix and Plimpton seem so natural and, with their chemistry, it's no wonder they were a couple in real life. I haven't seen THE MOSQUITO COAST in YEARS, but I recall that both brought a preternatural maturity to that project as well. Today, we have way too many pretty faces and not enough guts in the younger ranks. I digress...

  5. To beat another dead horse, the film's story hews very close to that of several '60s radical organization and movements:

    *The Weather Underground, whose most famous member is Bill Ayers. Ayers and his wife raised the gifted son (who went on to win a Rhodes Scholarship) of their jailed colleagues, Kathy Boudin & David Gilbert.

    *The Sterling Hall Bombing at UW-Madison (my alma mater) to protest research done there as part of the Army Mathematics Research Center, which resulted in the unintended death of a physics professor. One of the bombers remains at large today, nearly 40 years later.

  6. Keith:

    Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words. I hadn't seen the film in years and watched it recently and was struck by how well it holds up.

    Ned Merrill:

    It does tend to get a little preachy but the film is anchored by such a strong ensemble cast that I don't mind so much... that, and River Phoenix's character's story is so compelling.

    I too would love to have this in its original aspect ratio on DVD.

    I agree with you in that I just can't see who would play Phoenix and Plimpton's roles now. If he were a bit younger maybe someone like Ryan Gosling who has got the chops. But on the female side... again, a younger Emily Blunt maybe? Hard to say, but you're right about Jake Gyllenhaal. I thought he was great in OCTOBER SKY which he was much younger yet still had the chops.

    I too haven't watched MOSQUITO COAST in ages but it reminds me how good Harrison Ford was in the 1980s and how many chances he took. It's a shame that he burned out in the '90s and is phoning 'em in in this decade (except for the latest INDY film).

    "Today, we have way too many pretty faces and not enough guts in the younger ranks. I digress..."

    Truer words were never spoken.

    Thanks for the all the info on the '60s radical organization and movements. I had found info on this while doing research for the article but just couldn't find a way to put in there without it looking awkward and out of place so I kinda alluded to it.

    Thanks for the lengthy response!

  7. A nice review. Some clarifications:

    The 1981 newspaper story concerned the botched and unnecessarily violent (two policeman and a guard were killed with M16 rifles) Brinks Armored Car holdup, which was perpetrated by white members of the Black Revolutionary Army and a splinter group from the Weather Underground. Two of the former Underground members, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, were a couple with a young child -- in fact, they'd left him with a babysitter on the way to the robbery. It was Boudin and Gilbert's "radical-Bonnie-and-Clyde-parents" story that captured Hollywood's imagination.

    As I understand it, Naomi at the time was already interested in writing either a novel or a screenplay about 60s radicals before Lorimar approached her, but once she got the assignment, she made the story her own. Literally. The parents in Running on Empty, Arthur and Annie, were named after the activist parents of her friend from Barnard College, Eleanor Stein. (In the early 70s, Eleanor had gone into hiding, leaving her husband, teacher-activist Jonah Raskin, "above ground" to run errands for his wife, her lover, and the other fugitive Weathermen.) The Brinks robbery is referenced (the botched bank heist at the end), as was, as mentioned, the 1970 botched bombing of an Army research lab in Sterling Hall at the University of Madison in Wisconsin. This last reference went through the most convolutions, as the target was transformed to a napalm factory, which defies or simply ignores (my sense is that she simply ignored it) a writer's duty to reality, as any high-school chemistry book would tell you. But Naomi knew her audience. She knew that for them the word "napalm" would conjure up visions of screaming children on fire -- and that it would be a short leap for them to infer that Arthur and Annie therefore must be sympathetic people and good parents if they wanted to "blow up" such a wicked place.

    Having downplayed the genuine political aspects in her screenplay, Naomi turned to the creative template that she knew best -- her family. Not The Ideal Family, understand, but her own real-life family. Her young son and daughter, her problematic husband, her wealthy and distinguished yet emotionally distant father. There is so much in Running on Empty and her subsequent screenplays that references her feelings about her actual family, a Freudian might even take them for guidelines for the actuality she wished to impose on them. The true-to-life contentious father-daughter relationship in Running on Empty (1988) had its dress rehearsal in Violets Are Blue, produced two years earlier; while the symmetrical (mother, father, son, daughter) beleaguered families in A Dangerous Woman (as portrayed by the Bells -- philandering husband, alcoholic wife, adrift kids), Losing Isaiah (ineffectual husband, obsessed wife, lost/adrift kids) and Bee Season (deranged husband, deranged wife, adrift kids) are eerie stand-ins for herself, Stephen, Jake and Maggie -- in fact Jake and Maggie played the Bell children (who were nowhere in the original novel) in A Dangerous Woman. Her relentless portrayal, time and time again, of unsatisfying husbands particularly cries out for a separate and detailed analysis.

    But Lumet did hit the nail on the head when he remarked of Arthur and Annie, "These people's lives are a mess. The children are the only success they've got." It was its depiction of this unspoken anxiety of many a parent besides Naomi that allowed Running on Empty to be as effective as it was.

  8. Cantara:

    Wow, thanks for all of that info! That IS very interesting. I had no idea just how autobiographical the script was for Foner. It certainly puts a different spin on things after knowing about all of that backstory and the info on the real events.


  9. Excellent choice for a post. I issued a lengthy comment last night, but somehow bungled the publishing and it was deleted. So let me take another shot:

    Lumet's direction shows an extremely evocative sense of place. I think of Phoenix riding his bike through the wooded paths in the beginning, or walking with Plimpton through the trails. So many Hollywood films have blinkers on, and exist within the same bland metropolitan or generic-suburb locale. Efforts are made to hide unique touches so that the locations can be made to seem one-dimensional. But here, the director manages to reference the vast swaths of America where most Americans really live, and I commend him for it (by the way, where the hell does Hinson get off calling him "lazy"? Anyone care to explain that comment?)

    But what first drew me to this film was its connection to the 60s. In the late 80s it seems that, as the boomers were growing older, and the first generation not to have experienced the 60s was coming of age, a wave of romantic 60s nostalgia hit the culture. Think about it: the Reagan era was coming to an end, there was enough distance between 1968 and 1988 to make room for nostalgia (without there being so much distance that it becomes history book material), and the young dreamers of the decade now had children, stable jobs, homes - their previous involvement (however tangential, or even by proxy) in political radicalism, the counterculture, drugs, and all kinds of wild freedom must have seemed like some halcyon pipe dream.

    Think Wonder Years, Field of Dreams, the Beatles catalogue hitting CD, even that movie 1969, with Keifer Sutherland and Robert Downey, Jr. Running on Empty rode this wave, but Cantara provides an excellent (anti-auteurist?) reading of its own specific context. I would only add to that a bit of flagrant self-promotion:


    Which is my own review of the Weather Underground documentary, written during the election when Bill Ayers was in the newspapers, and including an interesting link at the end of the post, to an article about an encounter between an angry Weatherperson and a now-crippled Chicago judge during the Days of Rage.

    No doubt Foner romanticizes the couple and their radical past, cleaning up history as Cantara notes. It's a mythologization of the past, but I always find mythologizations fascinating, for the peeks they provide into what they distort, and what was on the mind of the distorters. For that, and for the reason, that it's a warm, enjoyable, sensitive, fascinating movie, Running on Empty is definitely worth seeing.

    Thanks again, JD, for this review.

  10. MovieMan0283:

    I really like the examples you cited for how Lumet creates an evocative sense of place, esp. the one where Phoenix and Plimpton's characters are walking through the trails. As you point out, there is an authenticity to the locations he uses. Not surprising at Lumet's reputation for achieving maximum reality in his films. But he even does it in a modest film such as this and it only enriches the experience of watching it.

    Good call re: the wave of Boomer nostalgia that this film is a part of. It also reminds me of the trend in the 1980s of Vietnam War films that was prevalent and popular.

    You are certainly right on the money with your examples... FIELD OF DREAMS particularly sticks in my mind.

    Thanks for the link to your article. I will definitely check it out.

    In regards to Foner's romanticization of the couple and their radical past, I think there is an interesting contrast between her romanticization and Lumet's knack for "keeping things real" as it were. It's an interesting tug of war going on between director and the script which is part of what makes it such a fascinating film to watch.

    Thanks for all of your great comments and observations.

  11. J.D., Field of Dreams may be the seminal work of this moment. It comes the latest - in '89, after Running on Empty, 1969, the Beatles re-issue, and the Wonder Years premiere. It attempts to tie in the radicalism of the 60s with such all-American tropes as baseball, farm life, and especially family. It's a postmortem attempt to reconcile the boomers with their parents, now dying away, who represent an older, more stable society which the aging boomers now yearn for. Ultimately it is a reclocation of their dreams, formerly located on political utopianism, personal liberation through drugs and sex, radical freedom, onto a mystical Americana which is still stubbornly individualistic, but more in a Frank Capra vein than an Abbie Hoffman. As such, the movie is a fascinating social document.

    Hmmm, I sense a full-length review coming on...

  12. MovieMan0283:

    Wow, you really have given this a lot of thought. I agree with your analysis of FIELD OF DREAMS, which gives it an added layer that most people are not aware of. Have you ever read the book? It's interesting to note that the author Ray originally seeks out in the book is J.D. Salinger but I'm sure the highly litigious author threatened them with a lawsuit if they went that route and went with Terrence Mann instead.

  13. I did hear that. While I like James Earl Jones (and, as a New Englander, that their epiphany takes place at Fenway Park) it would be really intriguing - perhaps comical - to see how the story unfolded if the character had been J.D. Salinger. Preferably playing himself. I can dream right?

  14. Heh, yeah that would've been great if they were able to use Salinger's name. It certainly would've given the film a different spin.

  15. Lovely, informative post! I loved this movie when I was in high school and going through a strong River Phoenix phase. It's smart and endearing and now I feel like watching it again!

  16. Alex:

    Thank you! Phoenix is so good in this film and the chemistry he has with Martha Plimpton is quite amazing. Such a fascinating character study/slice of life film.