Running on Empty (1988 film)

Running on Empty is a 1988 American drama film directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Naomi Foner and starring River Phoenix, Judd Hirsch, Christine Lahti, and Martha Plimpton. It was produced by Lorimar Television. 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.

Running on Empty
Theatrical release poster
Directed bySidney Lumet
Produced byGriffin Dunne
Amy Robinson
Written byNaomi Foner
Music byTony Mottola
CinematographyGerry Fisher
Edited byAndrew Mondshein
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • September 9, 1988 (1988-09-09)
Running time
116 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$7 million[1]
Box office$2.8 million[2]

Phoenix was nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Danny Pope in the film; Naomi Foner was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Phoenix was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture at the Golden Globes; Lahti was nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture Drama. The film was nominated for Best Director and Best Motion Picture Drama, and it won a Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay. Plimpton was nominated for a Young Artist Award for Best Young Actress in a Motion Picture. In a backstage interview on March 21, 1989, at the 61st Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon, Phoenix expressed his wishes for the film to have a sequel.[3]

The film marked the second time that Phoenix and Plimpton played romantic interests, having co-starred in the film The Mosquito Coast two years earlier.


Parents Annie and Arthur Pope are on the run as they were responsible for the anti-war protest bombing of a napalm laboratory in the 1970s. 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 was two years old. As the film begins, he is in his late teens, and the family, now with younger son Harry, are again relocating and assuming new identities.

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, 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.

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 from crimes for which Danny bears no responsibility. The family leaves Danny behind and heads off for their next identity in a new town.


Real-life inspirations

Politico's Jeffrey Ressner writes that Arthur and Annie Pope were loosely modeled after Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.[4] John Simon states that the characters' bombing of a napalm research facility was inspired by the Sterling Hall bombing of 1970.[5]

Critical reception

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 $2,835,116 in North America.[2]

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

Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an approval rating of 85% based on reviews from 13 critics.[9] Metacritic gave the film a score of 67 based on 17 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[10]

Awards and nominations

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Awards[11] Best Supporting Actor River Phoenix Nominated
Best Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen Naomi Foner Nominated
Golden Globe Awards[12] Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated
Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Christine Lahti Nominated
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture River Phoenix Nominated
Best Director – Motion Picture Sidney Lumet Nominated
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture Naomi Foner Won
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards[13] Best Actress Christine Lahti Won
National Board of Review Awards[14] Top Ten Films Won
Best Supporting Actor River Phoenix Won
PEN Center USA Literary Awards[15] Screenplay Naomi Foner Won
Young Artist Awards[16] Best Family Motion Picture – Drama Nominated
Best Leading Young Actress in a Feature Film Martha Plimpton Nominated

See also


  2. "Running on Empty". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2009-03-11.
  3. "River Phoenix - interview.wmv". YouTube. Retrieved 2017-01-04.
  4. Ressner, Jeffrey (2008-10-06). "Ayers script hopes to gain from Obama". Politico. Retrieved 2009-11-08.
  5. Simon, John (2005). Seven Types of Exiguity. John Simon on film: criticism, 1982–2001. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. p. 187. ISBN 9781557835079.
  6. Ebert, Roger (September 23, 1988). "Running on Empty". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2009-03-11.
  7. Maslin, Janet (September 9, 1988). "Running on Empty, A Family Underground". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-03-11.
  8. Ansen, David (October 3, 1988). "A Crazy, Imprudent '60s". Newsweek. p. 57.
  9. "Running on Empty". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 16 February 2018.
  10. "Running on Empty Reviews". Metacritic.
  11. "The 61st Academy Awards (1989) Nominees and Winners". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Archived from the original on October 6, 2014. Retrieved October 27, 2011.
  12. "Golden Globes Honor 'Working Girl,' 'War' Series". Los Angeles Times. 29 January 1989. Retrieved 17 January 2018.
  13. Easton, Nina (12 December 1988). "L.A. Film Critics Vote Lahti, Hanks, 'Dorrit' Winners". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 28 December 2017.
  14. National Board of Review of Motion Pictures :: Awards for 1988
  15. "PEN Center USA: Winners". Archived from the original on 2016-09-27. Retrieved 2015-05-08.
  16. "Young Artist Awards - President's Message". Archived from the original on 2013-01-16. Retrieved 2011-03-31.
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