In honor of Sidney Lumet's passing, I thought I should write up one of his films. I didn't even have to ask myself which one to choose - I knew it would be Running on Empty. Sure, it helped that I'd already reviewed one of my other favorite Lumets, The Verdict, and that I had a recently purchased VHS copy of Running on Empty sitting around waiting to be watched. The movie's premise doesn't hurt either: it deals with a family on the run from the law, because the parents participated in a terrorist action fifteen years earlier at the height of their radical activism. I'm a sucker for films about the sixties, particularly those that deal with the decade from a bittersweet, semi-nostalgic distance of twenty or so years - see my essay on Field of Dreams, which focuses exclusively on this angle.
I wrote then about "a late 80s trend: the ascension of the baby boom generation to Hollywood's height of power, accompanied by a burst of 60s nostalgia which helped (re-)define the era for a generation [represented] by 'thirtysomething' and 'The Wonder Years' on TV, big hits like The Big Chill and smaller films like Running on Empty (among others) in the cinema, as well as cultural events like the 20th anniversary of Woodstock and the release of the Beatles catalog on CD." The point of these enterprises - with the exception of the musical commemorations - was not so much to relive the era as to resituate its legacy, and those who experienced it, in the context of a later time period and the onset of middle age.
Yet I don't think this is why I'm so fond of Running on Empty - in a way the sociocultural connection seems almost incidental. At heart, the film is timeless in its feel and universal in its application; as with most powerful drama, it is simply a heightening and exaggeration of something everyone experiences - growing up, breaking away from your parents, and on the flip side letting your children go. The stars of the movie are not really Christina Lahti or Judd Hirsch as the fugitive mom and dad, but rather River Phoenix as the sensitive, gifted teenage son who loves his parents but yearns for a life of his own.
One needn't be in the Mafia to relate to the powerful familial drama of The Godfather, or have led Arab tribes in revolt to sympathize with T.E. Lawrence's vainglorious exploration of the desert (and himself) in Lawrence of Arabia. Likewise, one doesn't need to have parents who were in the Weather Underground to identify with Phoenix's struggle to break way from his family while holding onto them in some sense, or with the parents' painful decisions about whether or not to let him go free. Great art usually takes our own problems and blows them up larger than life so that we can relate to the characters while feeling transported into a more cathartic and overpowering realm.
Of course, I wouldn't necessarily call Running on Empty "great art" - it's an excellent film, and one I thoroughly enjoy but it doesn't intend to be a transcendent experience or anything like that. Yet I'd probably rather watch it any given day than any number of more accomplished or ambitious movies - one reason I maintain a difference between "greats" and "favorites."
One aspect of Running on Empty that has always appealed to me, and this relates back to Lumet as director, is its ability to create a full-bodied picture, in both the literal and suggestive sense. Literal because Lumet shoots scenes in long takes and from wide angles, so that we can soak in the surroundings. This is important in a film about a character who feels somewhat lost and disoriented as he moves from place to place - we need to see those palm trees in the early baseball scenes and then appreciate the cooler, more verdant New Jersey locations later on (as well as the tempting and dangerous business of the New York City scenes that Lumet - a dyed-in-the-wool Gothamite - must include). Also, this gives the film a palpable sense of Americana, important because it's about outsiders posing as normal people, whose relationship to their country - in both its geographical and political sense - is complicated.
This full-bodied quality exists suggestively as well, because Lumet is as patient with his actors as he is with his photography. While the solid screenplay could lend itself to melodrama in the wrong hands, Lumet would rather calmly observe a scene unfold. He lets characters reveal themselves in something like real time, with all the delightful and emotionally charged unpredictability that life offers. It's hard for me to imagine a film like this being released today, in a Hollywood increasingly fond of a two-dimensional graphic approach. The industry standard now favors streamlined, determinedly superficial surroundings, and a fondness for close-ups and quick cuts.
This is, of course, primarily true of blockbusters (though it wasn't always so; see the early films of Steven Spielberg, full-of-home-movie-like impulsiveness and random domestic detals that add authentic color). Yet the same trend seems to have also affected the art houses, where naturalism tends to be eschewed in favor of a kind of pronounced quirkiness. It's one reason Lumet will be missed - his talent was less for applying a personal vision than for finding, magnetlike, the potential for revelation, human interest, and exploration in the material he chose or was given, and then honing in on it masterfully, creating works rich with associations and charged with a power that seemed to come directly from life.
Running on Empty's relation to the historical record is an interesting footnote: the most prominent real-life models for Lahti and Hirsh are Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers (he of the controversial Obama association in '08). They were Weather Underground members who disappeared for about a decade, raising a family under assumed identities, before resurfacing in the eighties. Anyone who knows the history of the Weathermen will note that the real radical couple are both less relatable and more fascinating than the figures presented in the movie. They were far more full of hubris and with a much harder edge than the warm-hearted liberals onscreen (though Hirsch is allowed to flex an intriguing hardness and hostility, it seems less political than personal in nature).
What writer Naomi Foner and Lumet did was to take an intriguing premise and turn it into something fully and richly human. A fascinating movie could have been made about more complicated individuals - more offputting at times than the characters in this movies, and more openly political (Hirsh bursts out at one point about "white-skinned privilege" but quickly admits that he's more concerned about his son's safety than his exposure to bourgeois conservatism). Yet I'm quite fond of what the filmmakers did instead. While at times the historical hook seems a tad contrived, the down-to-earth relationships in the film are so effective it's hard to have any regrets.
A note on the chemistry between Phoenix and Marcia Plimpton, who were a couple offscreen as well. There's a quirky warmness and definite emotional charge to their scenes together, adding to the sense that we're watching real life unfold. The knowledge of where Phoenix would end up in a few years adds another level of poignance to the movie.
Ultimately, if I described Running on Empty in one word, it would be humanist - and that's certainly something we could use more of these days.
Read more about the film's fascinating history and development at Radiator Heaven.