ICYMI: Miracle Mile (1989)
Growing up in the tail end of the Cold War may seem insignificant now, but at the time the future didn’t always seem guaranteed to me. Despite a lack of social media and 24-hour news coverage, there was still more than enough hysteria and fear-mongering to make any logical person foresee an impending apocalypse. TV and film also contributed their fair share of frightening tales from the groundbreaking miniseries The Day After to Lynne Littman’s striking feature film Testament (featuring a heart-breaking performance by Jane Alexander) to John Badham’s ultimate nuclear near nightmare WarGames. To this day, I am sure that we all have our own scenario of what would happen and how we would we react in the face of nuclear war. 1989’s Miracle Mile is definitely one of the most intense cinematic versions of such a scenario.
From writer-director Steve De Jarnatt (Cherry 2000) comes this trippy, paranoid and surprisingly realistic tale of Armageddon set in the “after hours” world of Los Angeles. Initially, the screenplay was considered for use by Steven Spielberg for 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie. Thankfully, De Jarnatt was not happy with the direction the adaption was going and was able to hold on to this vision for a few years and direct it himself.
The film stars a post-Top Gun and pre-E/R Anthony Edwards as Harry, a perpetual hopeless romantic. He meets Julie (played the eternally underrated Mare Winningham) at the famous La Brea Tar Pits. They spend the better part of the day trading cutesy dialogue and glances. When Julie has to leave for her waitressing shift at an all-night diner, Harry promises to pick her up after midnight. The power goes out and eliminates Harry’s alarm clock, causing him to oversleep. When he awakes, he races to the diner to find that Julie is long gone. After leaving her a message via a nearby payphone he answers when the phone rings, hoping it is her.
Harry hears a panicky man named Chip on the other end of the line state that nuclear missiles have been launched, and it’s too late to recall them. Chip thinks that he called his family and doesn’t know he got the wrong number. Then we hear gunfire through the phone, and Harry is told to ignore everything he just heard by a foreboding new voice. Was this a prank? Is Harry still woozy from waking up? This and many questions echo as Harry stumbles back into the diner to see if anyone knows a young man named Chip and proceeds to tell his seemingly delusional tale. Most of the late-night people either scoff or ignore Harry. The one who doesn’t is a shadowy business woman (played by none other than Denise Crosby) who immediately opens her briefcase and uses a portable phone to state “things look bad and an attack may be on the way.”
Very shortly after this ominous confirmation, Harry and the diner patrons scatter in hopes of finding their loved ones and finding a way to escape town before the imminent attack. Harry has no other purpose than to find Julie and either A) escape town before the blast or B) spend his last hour on Earth with someone to love. Once he finds Julie, she is rightfully angry for having been stood up but also tries to interject some logic about Harry’s wild tale. But within the hour, word has spread over town and Harry and Julie find themselves trying to survive like everyone else. On the one hand, the world is ending, but on the other hand there is still the faint hope that this is a false alarm. But Miracle Mile is not about false alarms and takes its nightmare scenario to its natural conclusion.
Miracle Mile is both edgy and gritty with just enough room for logic and doubt to linger. Is this real or is Harry just dreaming? We take some time to wonder before director De Jarnatt goes full throttle with his uncompromising vision. Edwards and Winningham are engaging leads and the score from Tangerine Dream
captures the dreamy twilight nature of LA after hours. Nothing resembling a “feel good kind of film,” Miracle Mile delivers tension, fear, and stark humanity in a way that few thrillers over the part thirty years have.