Politics, Protest, and “Running on Empty”

There is a point in Running on Empty where Annie Pope (Christine Lahti), a fugitive who has been on the run for more than a decade, risks getting caught by having lunch wit her father. Obviously upset that he has not seen her nor her family since 1971, he also still carries anger about her crime–she and her husband Artie (Judd Hirsch) were part of a Weathermen-type antiwar group that bombed a napalm-making facility, a bombing that seriously injured a person. Frustrated at him for bringing up the crime, she says, “I didn’t come to talk politics.”

This line stuck with me after I watched the film, not because Annie is trying to shut down an argument so that she can ask her son to take her son Danny (River Phoenix), but because it’s also as if Sidney Lumet was making his thesis statement for the film. The politics of the Pope family are obviously on display for Running on Empty‘s two hours, but the point is not to show how the correctness of a certain point of view; instead, it’s to show how children an bear the burden of their parents’ actions. Make the Popes a right-wing extremist family who bombed an abortion clinic and the circumstances surrounding their lives might be similar. People on the run are interesting; a family on the run is intriguing, and this is a moment where Lahti has to portray desperation because her son is caught between the life that her and Artie have brought him into and the one he can have as a virtuoso pianist. So when you have this conversation in this film, questions come up: How do we address the violence in protest against violence? Is violence only okay when “your side” is doing it? And how do you deal with being the child of one of those people?

There was a point after I watched the film where I regretted not covering it when I was doing the “In Country” podcast, although in all fairness, I didn’t know what Running on Empty was about when I was hosting that show. All I knew is what I remembered from back in the day–it was a River Phoenix movie and one of three (the others being Stand By Me and My Own Private Idaho) that showcased his raw acting talent. That it had anything to do with the antiwar movement or that movement’s violent side escaped me.

Despite her insistence that we don’t think about the politics, at least in that moment, I can’t help but wonder about the Reagan Eighties and how that is being portrayed here. This was the era of a more conservative approach to American ideals, and while there was a bit of nostalgia for the flower power hippie part of the 1960s, the more violent aspects of the antiwar movement were still viewed with disdain.

Which is how we see all violent protest movements, epecially those that look to upend the status quo. I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but I can recognize that our culture has become purposely embused witha rigid mindset of the “right” way to protest. It’s nonvient, and perhaps features the holding of hands and singing of songs. And there is nothing wrong with that picture, as they are some of the most iconic protest images we have of the twentieth century. But there’s a gentility that’s pushed when those are the primary images we see, and is certainly the narrative that right-wing pundits insist upon, as they are quick to decry the violence committed in the name of any liberal or progressive movement, labeling it terrorism without any note of the irony that their own followers have committed actual acts of terrorism and treason.

You pick that sentiment up in Running on Empty, but in the conversation that Annie has with her father–a wealthy industrialist–and the bits of media coverage that are present while the family is on the run, some of which cause them to pack up and flee once again. For instance, at one point in the film, an old friend/compatriot comes to visit and is later caught robbing a bank. When the story breaks, the media employs a subtle tone of reminding the public that these people may have said they were antiwar, but they are actually bad.

And yet, Sydney Lumet (who directed the film) doesn’t want us to think that. If anything, that sentiment is there to show us the toll that being on the run can take. I’d say, in fact, that he wants us to sympathize with the Popes and is even setting up a subtle indictment of the Eighties’ inherent conservatism, or at least our culture’s want for a closed narrative. The Reagan Eighties mirrored the Eisenhower Fifties in many ways, and while those Fifties ended with Kennedy, they were ultimately upended by the Vietnam War. When Reagan declared “Morning in America”, the message was one of a return to a sense of pride; conservatism of the day sought to begin the rewriting of the Sixties as a problem and a mistake. The antiwar movement was the reason we lost the war, they spit on the troops when they got home, and were by all of their definitions “anti-American.” That idea trickled down in some ways into history curricula, and was used to an exceptional degree in drumming up support for our wars in the Middle East.

And that’s just an overtly white antiwar group. What I described was used to try and discredit the Civil Rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties and is still being done today with right-wing pundits and politicians falsely equating Black Lives Matter and white supremacist terrorsists.

Ultimately, I root for the Popes because they make the right decision and find a way to get Danny out of their cycle, knowing that he is a victim of circumstance. This is aided by the deeply written characters and the layered performances. Judd Hirsch–who always looked at least 45 and perpetually bothered–struggles with the conflict between his son’s independence and the need for their “mission”. Lahti plays a caring mother (and as an aside, is damn sexy in this film) who has more agency than most mothers in Eighties films. But the film belongs to River Phoenix–in fact, it garnered him an Oscar nomination. He spends the two hours of the film smoldering with angst while avoiding the scenery chewing that in lesser hands would have been terribly melodramatic, a two-hour version of Judd Nelson’s yelling through The Breakfast Club or the hammier points of Christian Slater’s monologues in Pump Up the Volume (both of which are favorites of mine). He loves his parents and believes in them, but also wants to be his own person and strike out on his own. Balancing coming of age with politics in a decade known for its flash is very tough and Running on Empty is a gem of a film that should have literary status.

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