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The Fullness of 'Running on Empty'

September 29, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The '20s carried a resonance in American society long after they were over. There was the expatriate discovery of Europe in general and Paris in particular; the feeling of liberation from everything that was stuffy and confining in the past; the excitements of a topless prosperity (before the bottom fell out).

In many ways the '20s still resonate, with their early sense of promise and their special mixture of innocence and cynicism (both a bit diluted). But now it is the '60s that have persisted beyond their time, carrying more reverberations than the '40s or the '50s, the '70s or, on the evidence so far, the '80s.

Like the '20s, the '60s began with a feeling of liberation from whatever was , even including the bland, safe prosperity of the years just before J.F.K. The music was different, the clothes were different, the stimulants were different and, ever more contentiously, the issues were different. Or rather, the issue was different: Vietnam and what to do about it.

Because of Vietnam the '60s lasted, symbolically speaking, until 1974, when the withdrawal could be regarded as a victory for flower power, for the whole idea of activism and protest. The victory was real enough but the times were already a-changing, and some of the early promise of the '60s had gone sour. There had been too many bad trips and too many hopes that didn't pan out.

There have already been some fine films about the echoes of the '60s. "Jonah, Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000," from Switzerland, was an early entry in the genre. The fascination now of "Running on Empty" is that the story tracks the activist idealism of the '60s into the late '80s and finds three variations on the hopes that were.

The hopes have become in one instance a criminal cynicism, in another an obsessive and ultimately unworkable clinging to the past and, finally, an acceptance that yesterday is over although its costs live on.

"Running on Empty," which was directed by Sidney Lumet from the fine and sensitive script by Naomi Foner, is a drama, not a docudrama, although the originating impulse for it was a news story about the arrest of a couple whose child did not know they were on the run from the FBI for their '60s activities.

The children of Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti know it well enough. They have moved more often than Gypsies, as the feds, with a patience suggesting Inspector Javert in "Les Miserables," close in again.

As drama, "Running on Empty" asks certain forgivenesses. Hirsch's one-liners make him seem part radical, part stand-up comic. The children protest very little about the constant uprooting (although the life has its excitements, as an adventure serial played for real).

Yet when the film threatens to play as pasteurized as "Father Knows Best" (although here father doesn't know anything like best), L. M. Kit Carson as the radical gone bad shows up and throws a cold shroud on all the understanding niceness. The lurking realities are always real enough.

To cite television again, "Running on Empty" is able, as "MASH" did and "Family Ties" does now, to handle hard truths and big issues within a deceptively bright and agreeable setting. The film is not always deceptively agreeable; it has one scene (which has gone into lore as "the restaurant scene") that for overwhelming emotional force may be as moving as anything you'll see all year.

In those relatively brief moments of a father-daughter confrontation the whole film declares itself, confirming the serious level of its intentions. The film is about many things, and one of them is the disruption of family relationships that was one grim penalty of life in the '60s.

"Running on Empty" is also about the long after-effects of the flamboyant gesture, the slow cost of commitment. There is a terrible poignancy in the price the parents have had to pay for what they believed in, and they aren't yet through paying even if, in a clever piece of story-structuring, the last feeling is of satisfaction and relief.

What Lumet and Foner have proved is that a film can be about something, and also be suspenseful, engrossing, romantic, moving, funny and truthful. You can only wish there were more like it.

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