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Running on Empty (1988)

PG-13 | | Crime, Drama, Music | 9 September 1988 (USA)
The eldest son of a fugitive family comes of age and wants to live a life of his own.


Sidney Lumet


Naomi Foner

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Nominated for 2 Oscars. Another 5 wins & 6 nominations. See more awards »


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Cast overview, first billed only:
Christine Lahti ... Annie Pope
River Phoenix ... Danny Pope
Judd Hirsch ... Arthur Pope
Jonas Abry Jonas Abry ... Harry Pope
Martha Plimpton ... Lorna Phillips
Ed Crowley ... Mr. Phillips
L.M. Kit Carson ... Gus Winant
Steven Hill ... Donald Patterson
Augusta Dabney Augusta Dabney ... Abigail Patterson
David Margulies ... Dr. Jonah Reiff
Lynne Thigpen ... Contact at Eldridge St.
Marcia Jean Kurtz ... School Clerk
Sloane Shelton ... Mrs. Phillips
Justine Johnston Justine Johnston ... Librarian
Herb Lovelle ... Hospital Clerk


The Popes are a family who haven't been able to use their real identity for years. In the late sixties, the parents set a weapons lab afire in an effort to hinder the government's Vietnam war campaign. Ever since then, the Popes have been on the run with the authorities never far behind. Today, their eldest son wants a life of his own although he is aware that would mean that his parents would either get caught or he will never see them again. Written by Kenneth Chisholm <kchishol@execulink.com>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


In 1971, Arthur and Annie Pope blew up a napalm lab to protest the war... Ever since then they have been on the run from the FBI. They chose their lives. Now their son must choose his.


Crime | Drama | Music | Romance


PG-13 | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:

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Release Date:

9 September 1988 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Die Flucht ins Ungewisse See more »


Box Office


$7,000,000 (estimated)

Opening Weekend USA:

$215,157, 11 September 1988

Gross USA:


Cumulative Worldwide Gross:

See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:



Color (Technicolor)

Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


During a 2016 Q and A session at Austin's South by Southwest Film Festival, Jake Gyllenhaal (whose mother, Naomi Foner, wrote this movie's screenplay) recalled that he was allowed to sit in on two weeks of rehearsals before filming started. The rehearsals made a profound impression on Gyllenhaal, who was six years old at the time; he recounted what he could remember about Sidney Lumet's process: "I do remember the process of exploration, kind of that feeling that there were no rules in that space. I remember River Phoenix asking questions about things that he wasn't sure about, that he didn't really know, and then it would resolve something in the screenplay where, you know, it 'read well,' but then it wouldn't be playable, and he would ask the question and all of a sudden it would become playable and emotional. You could see the actor's instinct kind of open up in their scene. I remember also Sidney Lumet finishing the day really early, because he got what he wanted in six hours. I remember all these really weird things and had no idea who I was around. It's not until now that I realize what an extraordinary privilege and amazing time t was to be amongst that." Gyllenhaal also recalled having a crush on Martha Plimpton at the time. See more »


During Danny's Juilliard audition, one of the school's admissions officers stated that he needed to supply them with SAT scores. Juilliard does not, and never has, required applicants to submit standardized test scores. See more »


Michael: Now, I have no right in telling this to you. It's dangerous for you and it's dangerous for them, but i'm sorry i just couldn't stop myself. You can do what you want to, you can tell your dad; anything, i don't care. I just needed you to know... I don't know what i'm doing, and i love you.
See more »


Oh Pretty Woman
Written by Roy Orbison & Bill Dees
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User Reviews

RUNNING ON EMPTY is in essence a well-meaning, good-natured encomium of family value and altruistic sacrifice
26 October 2017 | by lasttimeisawSee all my reviews

A pair of anti-war radicals on the run with their nuclear family, Annie and Arthur Pope (Lahti and Hirsch) are answerable for a napalm laboratory bombing in the 70s (with one casualty of injury), designated as an anti-Vietnam war protestation, and have been lying low with new identities every once in a while henceforth, until their eldest son Danny (Phoenix) reaches 17, a watershed is laying out, some big decision needs to contemplate by both parties.

In Sidney Lumet's RUNNING ON EMPTY, River Phoenix starts his transition from child stardom to the perilous adult world, this is his only Oscar-nominated performance, although it is vexingly shunted to the supporting category as the default victim of the Academy's inherent bias towards tender-year performers or newcomers. Here, he is the bedrock of the movie, a piano prodigy in his making (hereditary from the mother side), but he cannot be forever cocooned in his family's unorthodox lifestyle, and the irony is pretty on the nose, this damning society is rife with all things against Annie and Arthur's counterculture tenets, yet in the context, there seems to be no better alternative at their disposal, making him a fugitive for something he hasn't perpetrated? That is just unfair, thus it is almost imperative that Danny must be released from the clutches albeit he is disposed to stick with the status quo in the end before bid farewell to his girlfriend Lorna (Plimpton, very good in her tomboyish, cool-girl complexion), whom he is besotted with.

There is certainly a waft of elitism in the air, Danny is wanted by Juilliard, so how can any compos mentis parents thumb their noses at that proposition, which leaves them no choice but to cut their deeply bonded familial cord, it is very intriguing if there is a sequel to cover Danny's grown-up years, to see whether his parents' sacrifice is worthwhile. Apart from that, it is a thoroughly judicious melodrama and Lumet's low-key directorial gesture successfully elicits Phoenix's most touching persona as a youngster on the cusp of adulthood, whose caring nature is torn between the obligation to his family and a new world suddenly opens to him.

The whole close-knit cast has done a cracking job, Judd Hirsch, although one can hardly condone that him and Phoenix are cutting from the same family tree from their physical appearances, pulls off an earnest father and an activist with ardor, whereas, Christine Lahti is viscerally sublime in her Janus-faced versatility: checking the scenes where Annie pseudo-cavalierly converses with Danny's teacher and later a lachrymose tête-à-tête with her own father for the first time in 15 years, that is the testimonial.

Sensibly filleting the more sensitive political agenda (there are worms in their noble cause too) which is concomitant with the story-line, RUNNING ON EMPTY is in essence a well-meaning, good-natured encomium of family value and altruistic sacrifice, only its rushed finale (at least the logistics team could have packed some items in their departing truck considering they are fleeing from the place for keeps), hits like a fly in the ointment in a hearty 80s tale, incidentally, if the same story happens in a CCTV-rampant age like today, the family's fly-by-night endeavor will definitely not last such a protracted length to even face their offspring's growing pains.

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