Looking back on Sydney Lumet’s forgotten masterpiece of the late 1980s, Running on Empty, the first thing I notice is that I’m now closer in age to the parents played by Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti than I am to the two high school seniors played by River Phoenix and Martha Plimpton. I also realize that while I don’t feel middle-aged, it’s not a good thing, that those of us who were born in the 1960s and the 1970s have been sentenced to a perpetual cultural adolescence. We never developed our own style. Grunge was just the marriage of punk and heavy metal, which, in turn, was part of the tail end of the hippie culture of the 1960s. We debate the same political issues people did around Watergate. We live in a stagnant, paralyzed culture. Even though the new left and the anti-Vietnam-War movements were partly successful, they never realized their more radical potential. The “silent majority,” the extended backlash against the Civil Rights movement is now the darling of the media and the politicians, so much so that even liberals sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street — the millennial generation’s new new left — will often say “oh why can’t you be more like the Tea Party.”
Running on Empty is set precisely at the moment, in the milieu, when all of that was set in stone. Arthur and Annie Pope, two middle-aged 1960s radicals, are still living underground. Back during the Vietnam War they bombed a napalm laboratory and maimed a janitor who, unexpectedly, had been working late. Their elder son, Danny Pope, Phoenix, is a talented musician and a sensitive poetic soul who has become even more introverted because his parents have cut him off from the rest of the world. One step ahead of the FBI, they move every few months That means a new alias, a new high-school, and a new set of friends. Even though he has a rich inner-life, brilliantly expressed by the way he can sit down at a piano and play the slow movement from Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata out of nowhere, Danny comes off as hostile, distant, even, perhaps, as someone suffering from some form of high-functioning autism.
When the Popes settle down in the fictional New Jersey town of Waterford, however, Danny’s musical talent attracts the attention of his music teacher, Mr. Phillips. His good looks, in turn, attract the attention of Mr. Phillip’s daughter, Lorna, played by a luminous young Martha Plimpton. They draw him out of his shell. They invite him to concerts. They encourage him to apply to Juilliard. Arthur and Annie Pope, who are genuinely good people, the kind of parents who would normally be thrilled to see their introverted son make friends — and they both get along with Lorna — also recognize the danger. The more Danny stands out, the more people begin to like him, the greater the danger of their being exposed. If Danny applies to Juilliard, he will need transcripts from his old high-school that don’t exist. If he gets accepted, that means he’ll have to cut himself off from his parents. In other words, it’s in the entirely selfish interests of Arthur and Annie Pope to keep their son socially stunted and isolated. “Classical music is bourgeois white privilege,” Arthur scoffs at his son’s plans to apply to Juilliard. “It’s not rock and roll.”
In the end, Arthur and Annie Pope make the right decision. They let their son go. After they arrange a meeting with Annie’s parents, who agree to board Danny until he comes of age, Danny gets to attend Juilliard and stay with Lorna, to whom he had finally risked confessing the truth about himself. Arthur and Annie go on to continue their life underground. Sydney Lumet shows us what the Baby Boomers should have done, but refused, admitted that their youth was gone, and let their kids grow up and establish their own identity. They never did. What’s more, some of the most talented cultural icons born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like Phoenix himself and Kurt Cobain, would be dead within a few years anyway. By contrast, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dorhn, the two real life 60s radicals on whom Annie and Arthur Pope are based, still weigh heavily on the American political imagination, the big time corporate media even giving serious airplay to conspiracy theorists who believe they’re Barack Obama’s puppet masters.
But Sydney Lumet —and the screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal — still have their limitations.
Now that I’m older and more radical, I notice a conservatism and snobbery in Running on Empty that I missed the first time around. Sydney Lumet, the son of Jewish immigrants, and Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, a Jewish baby boomer, can’t quite get past the idea of a happy ending as “acceptance by upper-middle-class WASP America.” I see a class and ethnic resentment in Arthur Pope, a Jew, against his wife Annie Pope, a WASP, that’s never quite resolved. Letting Danny go means letting him live with Annie’s conservative Republican parents, go to Juilliard, play classical piano, and cut himself off from the unfinished revolution of the 1960s. I was struck by how Annie tells her father that the revolution is over, that radicalism became obsolete when they ended the war in Vietnam and the draft.
What really saves Running on Empty from becoming just another Big Chill with a better soundtrack and more likeable characters are Phoenix and Plimpton. Christine Lahti gives a good performance as a women holding her family together in spite of all the obstacles. Judd Hirsch is competent, if sometimes a bit irritating. You realize that his verbal and physical ticks remind you of Alan Alda’s insufferably smug Hawkeye Pierce from the old TV show MASH. But Phoenix and Plimpton are a revelation, especially after all the 30-year-old teenagers that marched through the endless parade of slasher and frat boy films cluttering up the cultural landscape the 1980s. They radiate youth and vulnerability, of the possibilities that my generation had but never quite realized. Indeed, it’s heartbreaking to realize how much talent River Phoenix had, how much more of a natural actor he was than the vaguely phony Leonardo DiCaprio or the needlessly quirky Johnny Depp. Phoenix’s overdose, of course, had nothing to do with the cultural paralysis that we find ourselves in these days, but, watching his performance in Running on Empty, it’s almost possible to believe that it did.