Running on Empty (1988 film)

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Running on Empty
Running on Empty movie poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Produced by Griffin Dunne
Amy Robinson
Written by Naomi Foner
Music by Tony Mottola
Cinematography Gerry Fisher
Edited by Andrew Mondshein
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • September 9, 1988 (1988-09-09)
Running time
111 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $3 million[1]
Box office $2,835,116

Running on Empty is a 1988 film featuring River Phoenix, Judd Hirsch, Christine Lahti, and Martha Plimpton, directed by Sidney Lumet, and was produced by Lorimar. It is the story of a counterculture couple on the run from the FBI, and how one of their sons starts to break out of this fugitive lifestyle.

Phoenix was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film; Naomi Foner was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Phoenix was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role at the Golden Globes; Lahti was nominated for Best Performance by an Actress. The film was nominated for Best Director and Best Motion Picture (Drama), and it won a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay. Plimpton was nominated for a Young Artist Award for Best Young Actress in a Motion Picture.

The film marked the second time Phoenix and Plimpton would play one another's romantic interest, having co-starred in the film The Mosquito Coast two years earlier.


The story revolves around parents Annie and Arthur Pope (Lahti and Hirsch) who in the 1970s were responsible for the anti-war protest bombing of a napalm laboratory. The incident accidentally blinded and paralyzed a janitor who wasn't supposed to be there. They've been on the run ever since, relying on an underground network of supporters who help them financially. At the time of the incident, their son Danny (Phoenix) was two years old. As the film begins, he is in his late teens, and the family (along with younger son Harry) are again relocating and assuming new identities.

As the film progresses, Danny's overwhelming talent as a pianist catches the attention of his music teacher at school. The teacher begins to pry into Danny's personal life, particularly questioning why records from his previous school are unobtainable. While he pushes Danny to audition for Juilliard, Danny also falls in love with Lorna (Plimpton), the teacher's teenage daughter.

As the pressure to have his own life and realize his own dreams intensifies, Danny reveals his family secret to Lorna. Meanwhile, Annie finds out about Danny's audition, and begins to come to terms with the fact that she must let her son go and find his 'own' way. This does not sit well with Arthur, even as Annie risks their safety to contact her estranged father and arrange a home and life for Danny if they should decide to leave him behind.

In the end, when Arthur hears on the radio that one of their underground colleagues has been shot and killed running from the authorities, he realizes that it is better for his son to pursue his dreams than to continue living a dangerous life on the run for which he bears no responsibility. The family leaves Danny behind and heads off for their next identity in a new town.


Real-life inspirations[edit]

Politico's Jeffrey Ressner writes that Arthur and Annie Pope were loosely modeled after Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.[2] John Simon states that the characters' bombing of a napalm research facility was inspired by the Sterling Hall bombing of 1970.[3]


Running on Empty was released on September 9, 1988 in 22 theaters where it grossed $215,157 on its opening weekend. It went on to make $2.8 million in North America.[4]

Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and called it "one of the best films of the year."[5] 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."[6] 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."[7] 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."[8]

The film has an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.


  1. ^ "Running on Empty - PowerGrid". Retrieved July 29, 2015. 
  2. ^ Ressner, Jeffrey (2008-10-06). "Ayers script hopes to gain from Obama". Politico. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  3. ^ Simon, John (2005). Seven Types of Exiguity. John Simon on film: criticism, 1982-2001. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. p. 187. 
  4. ^ "Running on Empty". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2009-03-11. 
  5. ^ Ebert, Roger (September 23, 1988). "Running on Empty". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2009-03-11. 
  6. ^ Maslin, Janet (September 9, 1988). "Running on Empty, A Family Underground". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-03-11. 
  7. ^ Ansen, David (October 3, 1988). "A Crazy, Imprudent '60s". Newsweek. p. 57. 
  8. ^ Hinson, Hal (September 30, 1988). "Running on Empty". Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-03-11. 

External links[edit]