Prayer Focus
Movie Review

Running on Empty

Reviewed by: Brett Willis

Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Mature Teen to Adult
1 hr. 96 min.
Year of Release:
Cover Graphic from Running on Empty

Starring: Christine Lahti, River Phoenix, Judd Hirsch, Jonas Abry, Martha Plimpton, Ed Crowley, L.M. Kit Carson, Steven Hill, Augusta Dabney, David Margulies, Lynne Thigpen | Director: Sidney Lumet | Writer: Naomi Foner

I rate this as one of the best films I’ve ever seen; the acting, directing and story are all top-notch. Not for children due to offensive content, but for mature audiences it reaches both the heart and the brain.

Arthur and Annie Pope (Judd Hirsch, Christine Lahti) have a family crisis more serious than that of most hippie-Vietnam-generation parents who now have teens themselves. The time is 1988 and for the past 17 years, ever since they injured a bystander while blowing up a war materials facility, they’ve been on the run (supported by the remnants of the Weather Underground, and using secret identities). Their older son Danny (River Phoenix) is a nice kid who loves music—he’s an excellent pianist even though he has only a silent keyboard to practice on—and wants to study at Julliard. But if he leaves his family, he’ll never see them again; the FBI even watches his grandparents, hoping to catch his parents someday. At every school he attends, he has to blend into the background, being neither too good nor too bad at anything. When Danny’s abilities are noticed by his music teacher, and when he begins to date the teacher’s daughter Lorna (real-life girlfriend Martha Plimpton), the time has finally come for him and his family to make some hard choices.

There’s a lot of profanity including multiple “F*” words (the required initial “R” rating must have been appealed on “artistic” grounds). Danny has sex with Lorna (off-camera) and admits it to his father. Dad’s not upset; he’s a liberal after all. But he’d certainly be upset if he knew that Danny has told Lorna the family secret. Dad is also caught in his own philosophy when Danny challenges his orders, and then reminds him that he (Dad) was the one who taught him to question authority. The interplay between Danny’s parents and other members of the Underground raises a lot of questions about liberalism in general, the validity of violent protests, and accepting the consequences of your actions and considering their effect on other people. Mom plans to turn herself in when her youngest child can get along without her (in real life, Katherine Ann Power did just that in 1993, after 23 years in hiding).

If you’re the emotional type, have a box of Kleenex handy. No matter what type you are, you’ll be thinking for a long time about the questions this film raises.

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