Miracle Mile (1988*)
Written and directed by Steve De Jarnatt
Produced by John Daly, Derek Gibson
Cinematography by Theo van de Sande
Music by Tangerine Dream
Kino Lorber Blu-ray (1:27)
(mild spoilers initially – more later)
As I mentioned in my recap of the movies I watched earlier this month, I have absolutely no recollection of Miracle Mile coming out in theaters, on cable, or on VHS. If not for Brian and Elric at Pure Cinema Podcast, I probably would’ve never seen it, so many thanks to the guys for recommending a title that has immediately become one of my favorite movies from the 80s.
The opening minutes of Miracle Mile lead us to believe that we’re being prepared for a fairly typical romantic comedy. The title, at least in my mind, could denote any of several locations, primarily in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but also shopping centers in Long Island, Coral Gables, Florida, Chicago, and perhaps others. Yet from the outset, the title seems to suggest a stormy, trouble-laden relationship between the story’s main characters, culminating in (clichés be damned) true love.
Musician Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards) plays trombone in a swing band when he meets Julie (Mare Winningham), a waitress at an all-night diner, Johnie’s Coffee Shop Restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard. Julie’s cute and a bit quirky; Harry comes across as nerdy, but also cool in a hip 80s-fashion sort of way. You can’t help but like them. They hang out at the La Brea Tar Pits and the nearby museum of Pleistocene lifeforms, reminders of ancient history. (Hmm… maybe those are symbolic hints?) We get a few awkward moments, the type that are practically obligatory in beginning cinematic relationships and we just know that something is going to come between these two, something large enough to separate them from each other until they can be reunited at the end of the film. And we’re okay with that.
Harry agrees to meet Julie at the diner when she gets off her shift at midnight, but he oversleeps. Realizing his mistake, he races to the diner (four hours late) only to discover that Julie’s long gone. Hopelessly waiting for her to return, Harry hears the ringing of a payphone just outside the diner. Hoping that it might be Julie, he picks up the phone and hears the frantic voice of Chip, a young soldier in a North Dakota missile silo attempting to warn his father that a nuclear strike is on its way in a little over an hour.
And we’re off…
(Mild SPOILERS follow with MAJOR SPOILERS noted later)
Still shaken up from the payphone conversation, Harry enters the diner and tries to convince the workers and customers inside – including a well-dressed woman named Landa (Denise Crosby, fresh from her role as Tasha Yar in Star Trek: The Next Generation) – that a nuclear missile strike is imminent. Landa instantly makes a few calls (on a clunky mobile phone), and has a plan to get them all to a helicopter that will take them to the airport so they can at least get away from the L.A. carnage. But not everyone at the diner is convinced that Harry’s warning is anything beyond a prank.
This conflict of whether or not the voice Harry heard on the payphone is real becomes the driving force of the movie. Was the warning legitimate or a bad practical joke? Anthony Edwards does a wonderful job of tying to convince everyone that the call was real, but we often see his own doubts creeping in. He knows how he must sound to the people around him, but what other choice does he have? Plus he’s trying to deal with the very real possibility that he’ll never see his newfound love again. No matter what he does, each step he takes in one direction – saving himself and the people in the diner or finding Julie – seems to work against the other. And as things begin to break down throughout the panic-stricken city, Harry can’t help wondering, “Am I the cause of all this?”
As well as reminding us of Martin Scorsese’s wonderful After Hours (1985), another movie about a love-at-first-sight nightmare, Miracle Mile also plays on the paranoia and anxieties surrounding the Cold War, a situation that seemed a real and constant threat in the 80s. The film’s gradual descent into madness, combined with an excellent score from Tangerine Dream and surreal photography from Dutch cinematographer Theo van de Sande, make Miracle Mile a unique disaster movie. We seem to know while we’re watching it that it’s going to subvert our typical disaster movie expectations, which it does (and then some).
The danger in watching the film in 2017 is in seeing the L.A. 80s backdrop as a fantasy world. Roger Ebert referred to the setting of the film as a Los Angeles style magazine type of art direction, which is it, one that’s very much of its time, but the neons and pastels seem so foreign to us now, we might be forgiven if we can’t place the film firmly in our own reality. It’s the same type of problem many young people have now when watching movies from the 40s and 50s. Remember that almost as much time has passed from the release date of the film to 2017 as the era of swing bands in which Harry plays and the 80s setting of the film. The movie has essentially become its own time capsule. Again, this happens frequently when younger audiences attempt to access and appreciate older films. Just remember where and when you are in the film and try to focus on the story and characters. No matter when or where any film was made (we’re talking here about mostly traditional narrative structures), it’s almost always about the story and the characters (or should be).
The film is loaded with so many great moments, scenes that need little explanation but are stunningly effective. One of my favorites occurs when Harry has instructed Julie to wait atop the Mutual Benefit Life Building for the helicopter that will take them to freedom. We hear Julie – on the roof of the building – yelling to Harry on the street. Harry looks up, unable to see her and we can almost think what he’s thinking: this may be the last time he hears her voice and he can’t even see her. (This scene is echoed later in the film to devastating effect.) The moment is probably unrealistic. I doubt voices would carry that far and clear, but I don’t care; it’s a great scene.
We’re also given a glimpse into the lives of several minor characters, people we’d love to know more about, but not knowing their full stories somehow makes them more real, their situations more urgent. I’ll never forget one of the last characters we see on the roof, a character we met earlier in the film but in a totally different context.
(The movie’s ending – MAJOR SPOILERS)
But it all comes back to Harry and Julie. They’re the ones we really care about, the ones we’re pulling for. And when we arrive at the film’s final shot, their relationship means something, perhaps more than it would’ve meant if things had turned out differently. The film – and especially its ending – could realistically be thought of as a film noir, although it’s primarily a disaster movie. Harry and Julie don’t deserve their fate at the end of the film. There’s an enormous sense of unfairness and although we might not like it, that’s the story De Jarnatt wanted to tell. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get that final shot out of my head and I know when I revisit the film I’ll be clinching my hands into fists, hoping against hope for a different ending this time. I think that’s the sign of great writing, creating characters we truly care about. It also helps that the performances – especially from Edwards, who’s in practically every shot – are superb.
Although Miracle Mile was De Jarnatt’s last theatrical film (he continued to work in television until about 2006), I admire him for sticking to his vision, even if it wasn’t a financially favorable one. The film clearly has a loyal, devoted fan base, which I am happy to be a part of after watching it. You can find out more about the film by picking up the Kino Lorber Blu-ray which contains many excellent supplements that will give you the film’s full story. Highly recommended.
*The film premiered at the Toronto Festival of Festivals in September, 1988 but did not receive a U.S. release until eight months later in May, 1989.
Photos: Movie Poster Shop, DVD Beaver, MGM Channel, Streamline