Running on Hope

“Running on Empty” (1988) is a must-see for anyone pondering what it means to be political. Director Sydney Lumet treads a fine line in this story of antiwar activists who, despite their fugitive status because of an inadvertent crime committed in a napalm lab in 1971, remain committed to leading lives that matter. Although the film shows them uprooting their two adolescent boys from school and friends, and focuses on the story of the 18-year old son in particular to convey a message about the difficulty of letting go, this family unit is also strong, intact, and joyful. The parents are devoted to their children at the same time as they are devoted to the cause of democratic political activism. With each new move, the father in particular tries to keep on empowering the people he touches with a message of political activism. A poignant scene towards the end shows him forced to leave his small restaurant, wistful about the relationship established with his employees and the efforts he’d made to ensure that they earned a living wage in decent work conditions. In the scene featured here, the mother meets with her father after a long absence, admits how hard her life has been, and asks him for help. Running on empty? I think they’re also running on hope. As the emotionally tortured father (Judd Hirsch) reminds the guilt-stricken mother (Christine Lahti), “we are trying to make a difference.” Clearly, it’s hard to balance family and political action, and this couple takes the challenge to extremes. But it is rare to find an honest representation of that challenge in our popular culture. Kudos to Lumet for this brave portrait of radical activists who suffer the consequences of walking the talk.

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