Miracle Mile (1988)
Steve De Jarnatt
Anthony Edwards (Harry Washello), Mare Winningham (Julie Peters), Mykelti Williamson (Wilson), Denise Crosby (Landa), Kurt Fuller (Gerstead), Diane Delano (Stewardess), Brian Thompson (Helicopter Pilot), Earl Boen (Drunk Man in Diner)
“I never really saw the big picture before, not until today. Love can sure spin your head around. God, where do you begin?” ” …It took 30 years for Harry Washello to find the right girl. My one-in-a-million girl and I let her slip away. I felt so bad I could’ve jumped into the tar pits. I thought I’d never see her again. Fate is a funny thing. We must’ve been meant to be together, Julie and I. I think I’ve always been a romantic kind of guy, I’ve just never had someone to be romantic with before. It was just like it’s supposed to be. I mean for a guy like me to find a girl my age who actually knows who Dicky Wells and Vernon Brown were, there has to be a cosmic plan of some sort. She’s a very hip girl, but a little old-fashioned. They way she brought her grandfather Ivan to see me play… like that trolley we toured the Miracle Mile in, it’s just a little out of time. I think it’s time for a change. My I should stop trying to be the king of the Glenn Miller impersonators; take a teaching gig around here at some junior high, see if there’s a vacancy in Julie’s Building.” – Harry’s opening narration.
“Dad, it’s me, Chip. How come the phone was busy just now? Jesus. Look. I had to wake you, and… it’s… it’s happening! I can’t believe it but we’re locked into it. Fifty minutes and counting. Christ! I can’t take it! I can’t fucking take it! I’m sorry dad. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t swear. I’m sorry but this is it. This is really it! This is the big one! Thor Arthur 66 ZZD. I told you what would happen if it ever came down. Well, it is! We don’t know why! Why would we, huh? It’s for real Dad, it’s no drill! We shoot our wad in fifty minutes! They’re gonna pick us up in five or ten and you could get it back in an hour and ten. Maybe seventy-five minutes!” – The Phone Call that Harry mistakenly answers.
End-of-the-world scenarios are nothing new. From ancient mythology and religious texts to classic literature, we’ve pretty much been fantasizing about how it’s all going to come crashing down since we first became self-aware. But though doomsday stories have existed since the dawn of man, they really came to be popular after 1946 when America more-or-less ended the second World War (itself a very apocalyptic event) with the dropping of the first nuclear weapons: Fat Man and Little Boy.
The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a devastating and world-changing event, the consequences of which still continue to spiral wildly out into our world. When people saw the first pictures of the devastation (these pictures were all long shots, showing only the destruction on the infrastructure, pictures of the effects of the bombs on human beings wouldn’t be released until later) they soon began to realize that mankind had gone a little too far.
We were well into the 1950s when the first stories came out. Novels like Neville Shute’s On the Beach finished the job of thoroughly scaring the shit out of everyone. It was bad enough that we had done this to other human beings, bad enough that the U.S. and Russia were now locked into a cold war that would go on for decades with massive nuclear arsenals pointed directly at one another, fingers ever hanging just over the launch button. The stark reality was that mankind had invented something that was not only going to kill our enemies, but likely everyone else in the process.
Post-Nuclear stories rose to prominence, the doomsday sub-genre flourished with tales of all colors. Many were terrifying, some were sober, but others were fantastic and goofy, the nuclear apocalypse became a go-to bit of gallows humor or an easy backdrop for horror, dramatic, or even romantic stories. In time the trend faded to be taken over by flesh-eating zombies and the return to prominence of alien invasion and natural disaster-based doomsday stories but post-nuke has never left the public unconsciousness and in 1988, writer/director Steve de Jarnett (who had previously directed the goofy dystopian/apocalyptic film Cherry 2000) released his cinematic masterpiece: Miracle Mile.
While there have been scores of post-nuke stories, and even a handful of pre-nuke, none have really dealt with what it must be like to be there at street level, at ground zero, in the hours leading right up to the blast. We’ve got plenty of stories about people in bunkers or remote towns, but what about all those poor bastards staring wide-eyed at the horizon as certain death comes flying at them from the sky?
The last day on Earth is the day that Harry (Anthony Edwards doing his best Richard Thomas) meets Julie (Mare Winningham, sporting a very unflattering haircut), the girl of his dreams. The two hit it off immediately and he promises to take her out dancing after her shift at work ends at midnight, but the power goes out in his hotel and he arrives several hours too late. He attempts to call Julie and answers the payphone, thinking she may be calling back, but the voice on the other end is a young man in a missile base who has called a wrong number in an attempt to warn his father that total nuclear war is a little more than an hour away.
After Harry gets off the phone, he goes inside the diner and informs the patron of call he has just received, a wall-street trader named Landa (Denise Crosby) makes some calls and more-or-less confirms that what Harry heard is true so they all pile into a catering truck (I want to note that one of the patrons is played by Earl Boen and I’ve decided that he’s playing Dr. Peter Silberman from The Terminator because it pleases me) and head to the airport. Harry makes for Julie’s apartment but someone steals his car so he’s forced to use the fry cook’s gun to hijack a car driven by a young hood (Forrest Gump, Con Air, and Justified’s own Mykelti Williamson) who takes him to Julie’s place, but runs off to pick up his own sister leaving Harry and Julie to get to a helicopter, which Landa has arranged to bring supplies to the airport, by themselves.
They make the helipad in plenty of time, but there’s no pilot so Harry runs out into the street looking for one. He lucks out in an all-night gym where a spandex-clad bodybuilder with Michael Bolton hair (played by Brian Thompson of all people) agrees to fly the chopper if he can bring along his similarly bespandexed golden-haired boyfriend (I have chosen to believe this man is The Golden Youth from The Road Warrior, because it pleases me.*)
Several other hurdles appear in Harry’s path but he and Julie manage to escape each one just in the nick of time. He avoids a SWAT team, loses Julie and finds her again, almost gets caught in a riot, escapes a stopped elevator, a missile flies over their head to detonate elsewhere, and though there’s no helicopter on the pad a gut-shot Brian Thompson returns to pick them up just as the missiles are coming. He tells them they can still make it.
But then the missiles hit.
The EMP fries the helicopter’s controls.
The helicopter crashes into the La Brea tar pits.
As they sink beneath the surface, Harry comforts Julie telling them that some day their bodies will be found and they’ll be put in a museum or maybe turned into diamonds if they suffer a direct hit.
There’s a flash and a loud explosion.
The Credits roll.
The movie dangles hope in front of us like a steak in front of a hungry dog, pulling it back just before we can sink our teeth in only to just throw it away. The ending of this movie is a slap in the face, a stab in the back. It’s cruel and unfair. It. Is. Perfect.
Screenwriter John Brancato wrote that all Hollywood movies are derived of one of four big lies: “1) Nobody ever really dies, 2) Love conquers all, 3) The individual can make a difference, 4) You are not alone.” With Miracle Mile, Steve de Jarnatt sets each of these common Hollywood tropes on a table and then smashes them to bits with a sledgehammer.
When Harry gets the phone call telling him he has, at most, 75 minutes get out of Los Angeles before global nuclear war destroys pretty much everything, you know he’ll figure out a way to live through this. Why? Because the individual can make a difference.
The only escape plan given for Harry and Julie is set up by Landa in the minutes immediately following the phone call. She is going to get a charter plane to take them to Antractica (due to its low rainfall and abundance of fresh water in
pog ice form.) Even if you’re a complete simpleton you likely recognize that that is the dumbest of all dumb plans. IF they can all manage to get to the airport, get a plane, gas it up, and take off in time to be at a minimum safe distance and IF they can manage to fly this plane all the way to Antarctica and land it without winding up a ball of twisted steel and fire, then they’re just going to be in a contest to see if they can stave off hypothermia long enough to die of starvation. But this plan sounds like it might work and even if it doesn’t, you know that Harry and Julie will be alright. Why? Because love conquers all.
Even as Julie and Harry sink into raw asphalt tar while the world around them is rendered into radioactive ash, we just know that somebody somehow is going to save them because nobody ever really dies and they are not alone. This isn’t Vietnam, there are rules, this is a movie! These people are the heroes, they have to live!
That’s what’s so deliciously nefarious about this movie. We’re introduced to Harry with the belief that he’s the hero, the protagonist, the guy who figures things out. But Harry isn’t a hero, he’s just a lovable schlub like the rest of us. This isn’t a movie about the haggard survivors crouching in ditches and surviving the nuclear holocaust by the skin of their teeth. This is about all the sad sorry folks who get caught up in the giant CG explosion while Vivica A. Fox ducks into a maintenance room or John Cusack drives away in half of an RV.
Easily the most impressive thing about Miracle Mile is that there’s a real sense that Harry and Julie’s story is a B or C plot in some major disaster blockbuster. This is like a version Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for a Roland Emmerich movie. Characters enter and exit the screen fully formed as though we’ve been dutifully following them the same way we’ve been following Harry and their stories are as compelling and often moreso than characters we spend the entire time with. It immerses the viewer and makes them feel like they’re trapped there on the ground with Harry and Julie, madly trying to escape while the world goes mad.
Harry and Julie are the B-plot, he isn’t the main character and his problems and goals are just a whisper amongst a cacophony of other voices. And that’s the big message of this movie: your life may be a big deal to you, but when the world ends you aren’t going to be Max Rockatansky or Snake Plisskin. You’re going to be “Man in Suit #5” gawking at the sky as the alien death laser atomizes you and a million other poor souls in a big fiery explosion. Miracle Mile is the post-nuclear story completely stripped of romanticism and it floored me in the way it executed this message.
I want to say there are no other films like Miracle Mile, but that isn’t true, just none that are anywhere near as competent. Pretty much the entire found-footage genre, and especially Cloverfield, are trying to recapture the same magic that this movie did effortlessly without the use of a point of view gimmick (don’t mistake that as a jab at found footage gimmicks though, because Miracle Mile does rely pretty heavily on a passage-of-time gimmick.)
Every piece of this movie is so meticulously crafted and shaped that it’s a true work of art. The sets are vivid and full of life, they’re lived in but surreal like a Norman Rockwell painting with a pop-art spin. As I mentioned above, every character seems to have their own story as if they are the protagonist and it makes nobody seem like a one-note character or an extra. The score by Tangerine Dream is operatic and beautiful, it’s very much of the 80s and still somehow timeless. Nobody turns in a bad performance, not once did anyone’s line reading take me out of the movie.
After the phone call, the movie takes place more-or-less in real time. The plot moves at a harrowing pace, but it knows when to take a breather and when to ratchet up the tension and by how much. I found this film more genuinely scary than most horror movies.
Miracle Mile is not a good movie, it is a great movie. I have no exceptions, no apologies or defenses, I have no caveats. Miracle Mile is a flawlessly staged and executed movie and though it very obviously takes place in the 1980s, it is timeless. This movie is a masterpiece and if it isn’t next on your “to watch” list then you’re doing yourself a disservice.
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*No reason is ever given for the nuclear war in the movie so I’m just going to be a huge dork and make my own fan canon. SKYNET gains self-awareness and sends out the nukes, this movie takes place on the day that happens. While Brian Thompson’s helicopter pilot dies in the blast, his spandex-clad boyfriend Leslie makes it on the flight with Landa. Due to issues with the naviagtion equipment and the weather conditions caused by several hundred nuclear weapons going off at once they wind up off-course and the plane crash-lands in the Australian outback. Leslie, the sole survivor, is found by Wez who reminds him of Brian Thompson’s characters. SKYNET takes over the Earth, but leaves Australia to it’s motorized fiefdoms because it doesn’t care about opals and oppressive heat any more than anyone else.