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Political Films That Lack 20 / 20 Vision : ‘Running on Empty’ and ‘Betrayed’ Look at the Different Worlds of the Left and Right

If you think that pre-election rhetoric has been playing on the differences between the political left and right, you should see what the movies have been doing to contribute to snarled-up thinking about these opposite camps. From “Betrayed” we’ve had frenzied paranoia about the right; from “Running on Empty” we’ve had a misty deification of the left, or at least of radical values. Both films spring from the same humanist impulses, but “Betrayed’s” overkill cripples its message of danger from the radical right.

“Running on Empty” certainly has its seductive side. For starters, it has Christine Lahti and when you watch the loving intensity and intelligence that seem to radiate from her in every role, but especially in this one, it makes you want to sweep almost any reservation aside.

Lahti and a very actor-y Judd Hirsch play Arthur and Annie Pope who, more than 15 years ago, blew up a laboratory manufacturing napalm for the Vietnam War, and in the process, blinded a janitor “who wasn’t supposed to be there.” As a result, they’ve been on the run, with the FBI after them and only “the organization” on their side, providing everything from cars to dentistry when they needed it. (You might imagine that most of the old gang were either on the lecture circuit or too busy with their Leading Edge-like entrepreneurships to keep up with their tithing.)

Finally, in a restaurant, Annie has the film’s great set-piece scene with her rich, conservative father whom she hasn’t seen since the bombing. He’s Steven Hill, that master of reserve-covering-emotion; he was Anne Bancroft’s long-separated husband in “Garbo Talks” and Meryl Streep’s laconic father in “Heartburn.”

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And because of Lahti, and the play of emotions across her face during this meeting, you are willing to forgive whoever left Hill’s gleaming white mustache in the crimper too long and got the crimp crooked. You may sneak an incredulous look at it from time to time, wondering where director Sidney Lumet’s attention was when first confronted with this oddity, but then the chemistry between Lahti and Hill really begins to bubble and you manage to overlook it. Sort of.

It’s only after you leave the theater and really begin to think about Naomi Foner’s screenplay, that the questions come piling in. The Popes have brought up two sons--a 17-year-old (River Phoenix) and a 10-year-old (Jonas Abry )--on the run, spending a few months in one community, a few more in another. What they have produced from this unrelenting pressure cooker is a pair of perfect, un-neurotic, resourceful, uncomplaining sons--boys who can dump the family dog when they must, and breathe never so much as a word of complaint about it afterward. (In an act of unparalleled liberal homage, that dog’s name is Jomo. If you admire Jomo Kenyatta, you name your dog after him? Is this a bit by Mort Sahl?)

The film’s premise is shameless and seductive all at once; it’s what we’d love to believe about what used to be called bohemians, but I’m afraid I don’t believe it for a minute.

Arthur and Annie are defined almost entirely by their roles as parents. We don’t exactly know what their guidelines were in the ‘70s: If they included the blowing-up of buildings, you would think they would at least have had to consider the possibility that they might also have caused death or injury. All we have to measure them against is a crazy radical friend (L. M. Kit Carson, superbly cast) who shows up toting guns in his car, talking about bombs and the revolution, and prompting Arthur’s self-righteous contempt: “That’s not what we’re about.” Since Carson’s womanizing character is clearly a rotten apple in any barrel, he’s not much help in defining just where the Popes do stand now, 15 years later.

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One example of what Arthur is about may make you pause. That’s his reaction when River Phoenix comes home at an hour that suggests serious involvement with his girlfriend. “You sleeping with her?” Arthur asks offhandedly, in the best tradition of loving/supercool/with-it dads. The other half of that question from a really concerned father, “What precautions are you using?” goes unsaid. So much for the 1980s. Or even for the power of liberal films to set good examples.

The film is fixed around the family unit--but neither of the parents seems to have given much thought to what lies ahead. Annie is going to turn herself in, “when her younger son no longer needs her,” but no one has named the date--or even the year. And when their older son turns out to be musically gifted, his father’s reaction to the news that Julliard is interested in him is outright denial: College for the boy would mean breaking up the family, “and to me, that’s unacceptable.” What did he have in mind, the family together when that 17-year-old is 50, a sort of smart “Best Boy,” everyone still on the lam, the sons still dyeing their hair every three weeks?

What “Running on Empty” really feels like is a script that wasn’t clearly thought through, but one that has enough gallant appeals to ‘60s/'70s ideals to make us want to let its wobbly logic off the hook.

Nothing about “Betrayed” raises any such protective emotions. This lunatic “expose " of white supremacists, springing up like toadstools all over heartland America, has so many inflammatory scenes that it’s not hard to see how the far right would love it. Why not? With Tom Berenger as their spokesman, “Betrayed” is the best recruitment movie that that rag-taggle group could hope for. Berenger, you understand, is not just a bigot, he’s a “good” bigot; the “Commies, the Jews and the niggers” are his targets but a Nazi uniform just makes his stomach turn.

What’s so despicable about the film is the fervor that director Costa-Gavras brings to his staging of atrocity scenes--the nighttime death hunt of a black man by the bib-overalled pillars of this farming community. It’s practically lip smacking. And in the same breath, he treats this contemptuous parody as though it were a nightly occurrence among Midwesterners, another spectacle of American fascism on the march.

To excuse things by suggesting that Costa-Gavras is on unfamiliar ground would be to insult his skill or his intent: what we see is exactly the “Amerika” he wants to reveal. You can assume, too, that his choice of Joe Eszterhas as his screenwriter wasn’t accidental either; that he wanted a writer with Eszterhas’ flair for the real America, as he’s already shown from his union epic “F.I.S.T.” to his saga of a simple American welder, “Flashdance.” It’s hard to imagine a pair of collaborators more perfectly attuned.


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