In 1971, Arthur and Annie Pope were part of a group of radicals who bombed a laboratory making napalm for the Vietnam war. A janitor in the building was critically injured. With their two-year-old son Danny, the Popes went underground. Danny is now seventeen and Harry, another son is ten.

Running on Empty is directed by Sidney Lumet from a screenplay by Naomi Foner. After repeatedly eluding the FBI by changing their identities and residences, the Pope family is psychologically and emotionally exhausted. Danny, brilliantly played by River Phoenix, has fallen in love with Lorna (Martha Plimpton), a rebellious and independent teenager. He is not sure he wants to keep moving. Danny has a chance to study music at Julliard, an opportunity which could mean a permanent separation from his parents. Judd Hirsch as Arthur is a dedicated father who desperately needs the support of his eldest son in the face of constant peril. Christine Lahti as his mother Annie loves her son fiercely but realizes it is time to let him go.

With just the right combination of seriousness and sentiment, Running on Empty compels us to think about the bonds which tie a family together, the onerous responsibilities of parenting, and the burdens of children who are sensitive to the needs of their mothers and fathers. Affirmation, caring, need — all these aspects of family life come alive in this memorable film. Running on Empty is one of the most poignant and edifying works on the blessings and burdens of family love to come to the screen in the 1980s.