"Running on Empty" is one of Sidney Lumet's best films but the 1988 release remains one of his least-seen, despite winning enthusiastic reviews upon its release. Perhaps the offbeat storyline and lack of "boxoffice" names in starring roles prevented potentially appreciative audiences from seeing it. However, the good news is that the Warner Archive has made the title available on Blu-ray. Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti play Arthur and Annie Pope, a married couple who, in the 1970s, were part of a radical leftist group akin to the Weathermen. They carried out a scheme to destroy a facility that was manufacturing Napalm but the bombing had an unintended consequence: a security guard ended up blinded and partially paralyzed. Now it's 1988 and the couple have been on the run ever since, the FBI having doggedly pursued them the entire time. The Pope's situation is complicated by the fact that they have two sons: Danny (River Phoenix) is a senior in high school and his brother Harry (Jonas Abry) is a precocious pre-teen. The family is constantly pulling up stakes and moving out on the spur of the moment if they suspect the feds are closing in on them. When we first meet them in the film, the family is on the run again. They sustain themselves by Arthur getting short-term jobs in each new location, as Annie stays home with the boys. They are aided and abetted by a clandestine secret network of left-wing sympathizers who provide them with seed money to help them manage a lower-middle class lifestyle. Still, the nerve-wracking nature of their existence is taking a toll on everyone, especially Danny, who is of an age where he wants and needs stability. When the family ends up renting an apartment in a New Jersey suburb on the outskirts of New York City, Danny finally finds a niche in the high school. His music teacher, Mr. Phillips (Ed Crowley) recognizes the boy's musical abilities and arranges for him to apply to Julliard for a scholarship, which he wins against all odds. This development causes a family crisis. Arthur maintains that in order to attend the school, the family will finally have to come up with positive proof of Danny's real identity- a revelation that would be sure to bring in the authorities and separate him from the family indefinitely. Annie argues that it's time to put Danny's life dream ahead of their own priorities and claims she can ask her wealthy, estranged father who she has not been in contact with for years, to allow Danny to live with him in Manhattan. Arthur, who has an authoritarian streak, insists that the family stay together. Complicating matters is that Danny has fallen hard for his first true love, a sassy classmate named Lorna Phillips (Martha Plimpton), the daughter of his music teacher. She lives a privileged life but is unhappy because she doesn't adhere to society's idea of conventional behavior. The two teens become emotionally dependent upon each other- but when Arthur learns the feds are closing in again, Danny confesses his real identity to Lorna in order to explain why he has to leave in order to keep his family together.
If all of the above sounds a bit soap-operaish, it doesn't play out that way. Under Lumet's steady and assured direction, and working from a terrific screenplay by Noami Forner, every cast member delivers a superlative performance, including those in supporting roles. (Kudos to the casting director, Todd Thaler, for rounding up such a talented group.) Hirsch is great as the sincere but flawed father who barely hides a dictatorial nature. Lahti is equally good as his committed, but long-suffering wife. The scene stealers are River Phoenix and Martha Plimpton, both of whom deliver superb performances. There is no action, no violence, only pure human emotion. After so many years on the run, fractures appear in the relationship between Annie and Arthur. She had always been content to allow him to dominate the family's actions but now she is daring to defy him. There are so many beautiful and touching scenes in "Running on Empty", but one of the best is a quiet one in which young Danny and Lorna express their love for each other. It's one of the most richly rewarding romantic scenes in any film. There is also a beautiful and touching scene in which Annie defies Arthur by secretly arranging to meet with her estranged dad (superbly played by Steven Hill in an abbreviated but pivotal role). Tensions mount until the highly emotional final scene.
"Running on Empty" provides no villains. The FBI men are shadowy figures but they are just doing their jobs and trying to enforce the law. Annie and Arthur are haunted by the fact that their act of violence claimed an innocent victim but their ideology prevented them from ever taking responsibility for their actions. They are still committed idealists who believe in taking down the Establishment, even if they no longer adhere to doing so through violent means. The film is not only thought-provoking but thoroughly entertaining. It's another outstanding achievement, albeit it a relatively unheralded one, from one of America's master film directors.