Film Review: protesting the Viet Nam war leads to disaster.
RUNNING ON EMPTY: Distressing Disasters
Once we know something is illegal or morally wrong, we must act to correct the situation or forever ignore our screaming conscience. In Sidney Lumet’s film, RUNNING ON EMPTY (1988), Annie (Christine Lahti) and Arthur Pope (Judd Hirsch) are college students who study the Viet Nam War and find it illegal and immoral. They must act. But without thinking of the consequences, they commit violent actions, which place themselves and their growing family in extreme jeopardy, as they crisscross the country, still trying to do good. Protestors should not cross that invisible line into violence.
First, individual honesty requires our outcries when our country begins to sink into an illegal war. Within the last century, we have not followed our own rules in warfare. We have conducted secret bombings, made secret weaponry. When the Popes find out our government is manufacturing napalm, an oily substance that burns fiercely, and is using it on human beings in Viet Nam, Arthur and Annie act on her idea: let’s bomb the factory making the napalm. With that act, the Popes cross over the line into violence. Honesty demands they act, but non-violence would have been so much more effective. As Arthur later says to his old radical friend, “Guns are not what we are about.”
Second, the Popes see the plight of the poor and they’d like to help. But this time, they do not blow up the institutions harming the poor. No, instead they form food co-ops, buying food and other essentials at lower prices, then helping the poor purchase these goods. The Popes have learned from their violent act, but only their hidden identities keep them from being discovered as they choose a better approach. Arthur says to his son, Danny (River Phoenix), “Go out there and make a difference. We tried.”
Third, the Popes watch as nuclear reactors are built across the country. They sense a government mistake. Reactors are hard to contain, they might spew radioactive poison in the air, and they could melt down. Again the Popes react with integrity, organizing protest groups who will pass out leaflets and carry signs against the power plant, peaceful methods to ensure a peaceful world. Harry (Jonas Abry) asks why the parents fought against the military industrial complex. Danny answers, “Because they wouldn’t stop using napalm when citizens asked them politely.”
However, once the Popes cross into violence, the FBI becomes relentless in tracking them down for their error. The Pope’s two boys, Danny and Harry, must share the pain and loneliness of running from the law, of running from their past lives. These two young men are innocent of any violence, but their lives are shattered anyway. The two Popes never think about the result of their bombs: these incendiaries explode into their own family, tearing their emotions apart. The complete price of violence is completely unfathomable to them and to the United States. We are still paying the price of that war today.