Friday, June 28, 2013

Miracle Mile

“I think I’ve always been a romantic kinda guy, just never had someone to be romantic with before.” These are the first words spoken by protagonist Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards), a big band musician who is about to meet the love of his life. Too bad the world is going to end. Miracle Mile (1988) is not your typical romantic comedy. During the 1980s, with the nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia hanging over the world like a horrible specter, apocalyptic movies were all the rage, from thrillers like The Manhattan Project (1986) to thoughtful meditations on the subject, like Testament (1983). Somewhere in the middle is Miracle Mile, written and directed by Steve De Jarnatt. His film is an impressive fusion of the romantic comedy and thriller; starting off with a charming meet-cute between a musician and a waitress only to shift gears into a tense, race against time.

Unfortunately, the film wasn’t given a decent enough theatrical release and promptly disappeared onto home video where it gradually developed a small, but dedicated cult following. Miracle Mile deserves to be rediscovered, with its engaging, fully-realized protagonist who is thrust into a nightmarish scenario while trying to find the love of his life. For all of its exciting, thriller conventions, De Jarnatt never loses sight of the film’s humanity – something that is missing from a lot of contemporary genre offerings.

“Love can sure spin your head around. God, where do you begin?” says Harry Washello in a voiceover narration at the beginning of the film. Where indeed? Why at the beginning, of course – the Big Bang as De Jarnatt cheekily cuts to an educational film about the creation of our galaxy, Earth and life on it. Harry meets Julie Peters (Mare Winningham) at the La Brea Tar Pits museum and it’s love at first sight in a beautifully edited montage that plays over the opening credits. It is scored to the lush, angelic electronic music of Tangerine Dream, a fixture among soundtrack work during the ‘80s. It sets up a wonderfully romantic vibe as we watch Harry and Julie spend a sun-kissed day laughing and enjoying each other’s company.

There is a dreamy kind of optimism usually associated with romantic movies, but Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham are not your stereotypical picture perfect couple. They are more realistic, like some you might actually know. De Jarnatt wisely takes the time to let us get to know Harry and Julie and let them get to know each other. It makes their romance believable and, as a result, we care about what happens to them later on because we’ve become emotionally invested.

They hit it off and plan to meet later, after she finishes work at a diner on the famous Miracle Mile in Los Angeles. He goes back to his hotel and takes a nap, setting his alarm for later that night. A freak accident knocks out the power, which causes Harry to oversleep and he misses their date. When he finally wakes up, Harry rushes down to the restaurant where Julie works only to find out that she has gone home long ago. He intercepts a frantic call on a nearby pay phone from a guy in a nuclear missile silo that will change his life. He is told that the United States has gone to war with the Soviet Union and he has 70 minutes before a nuclear missile hits the city. It is a chilling scene as the poor guy was just trying to call his dad and got the area code wrong. Harry then hears the man being shot and killed over the phone. Another voice comes on the line and tells Harry, “Forget everything you just heard and go back to sleep.”

It is at this moment that Miracle Mile goes from being a sweet romantic comedy to a white-knuckle thriller as Harry tries to convince the people at the diner that what he heard over the phone was true. This sequence is beautifully staged as some people don’t believe him or don’t care while some take him very seriously, like a woman named Landa (Denise Crosby), who has connections in the government (in a nice touch we are introduced to her reading Cliff’s Notes for Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity's Rainbow). Anthony Edwards anchors this scene so well as we see the realization of what is going to happen register on his face. Harry goes from disbelief to shock to panic and then tries to explain what he was just told to the diner patrons.

Once Harry decides to find Julie, the film’s narrative rapidly gathers momentum as he races against time with every minute more urgent than the last. And we’re right there with him as we’ve grown to empathize with the guy, having spent the first third of the film getting to know and like him. The rest of Miracle Mile plays out like some kind of waking nightmare, like something spawned from the mind of Rod Serling for The Twilight Zone. The race against time takes us through L.A. after hours with Harry meeting all sorts of colorful characters and getting into all sorts of crazy situations that, while extraordinary, are believably depicted because of the amount of stress he is under. De Jarnatt conveys the increasing chaos as knowledge of what’s happening spreads through the city gradually, building in intensity until it culminates in a full-on riot that is incredibly convincing on what was a relatively low budget. It’s on par with anything a studio could crank out at the time only with a better script and a solid cast.

The always reliable Edwards does a great job as an every day guy caught up in an extraordinary situation. He has a very relatable everyman quality that is used to great effect in Miracle Mile. He anchors the film as its sympathetic protagonist and does a fantastic job of showing Harry’s transformation over the course of the story as he gets increasingly frantic. Yet, he tries to maintain a calm façade for Julie’s sake, but has the knowledge that the world will end before most people, which weighs heavily on him as Edwards so nicely conveys through facial expressions. You can see that Harry is not only trying to process what’s happening, but also trying to figure out a way to escape with Julie.

I like how De Jarnatt establishes all the locations that will become crucial in the second half of the story in the first ten minutes of the film. There are also sly cultural references, like Denise Crosby’s character reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, which is about the V2 rocket launching, a precursor to nuclear missiles. There are also several nice, little moments, like Julie’s estranged aunt and uncle reuniting after years of bad blood, brought together by the knowledge that they have very little time left. They want to spend what’s left with each other. It’s a nice bit of humanism amidst the chaos.

When he was younger, Steve De Jarnatt experienced vivid nightmares about nuclear war. In 1978, he decided to write a screenplay that articulated some of these fears and it became Miracle Mile. At the time, he was an aspiring director fresh out of the American Film Institute and wrote the script for Warner Brothers. However, they envisioned a bigger budget film and didn’t want to entrust it with a first-time director. The studio put the project in turnaround for three years and De Jarnatt spent all of his money - $25,000 – to buy and rewrite it. In 1982, the studio offered him $400,000 to option it, but he turned them down.

De Jarnatt decided to shop the script around to various Hollywood studios and was turned down several times by executives that didn’t like the downbeat ending. The filmmaker said, “I certainly could have made it a few years ago if (the hero) woke up and it was all a dream, or they saved the day.” In fact, at one point, he was approached to shoehorn Miracle Mile into Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) only with a happy ending, but he turned that offer down as well. By 1983, De Jarnatt’s script was chose by American Film magazine as one of the 10 best unmade scripts.

Actor Anthony Edwards read the script for Miracle Mile on a plane ride and remembered, “going, ‘Oh, god. Oh, oh, come on! I can’t believe this!’ I threw it down and said, ‘I can’t believe someone wrote this!’” When he got home, the actor recounted the story told in the script to a friend who was amazed by it. The actor agreed and realized that he had to do the film. Edwards used whatever clout he had left over from the success of Top Gun (1986) to help finance the film. Hemdale Films’ John Daly was willing to take a chance and gave De Jarnatt a $3.7 million budget.

Miracle Mile received mixed to largely positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “Much of the movie’s diabolical effectiveness comes from the fact that it never reveals, until the very end, whether the nightmare is real, or only some sort of tragic misunderstanding.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden praised the performances of the two leads: “Mr. Edwards gives Harry the same appealing gawkiness that he brought to Revenge of the Nerds, the movie that made him famous. Ms. Winningham imbues Julie with a flashing intelligence and sweetness.” The Los Angeles Times’ Erik Hamilton wrote, “A sort of new-wave nuke film, Miracle Mile is intense, humorous and powerful. And, yeah, it’s also sometimes off the wall.”

However, in his review for the Globe and Mail, Chris Dafoe wrote, “The only miracle in Miracle Mile is the way it manages to make nuclear war seem as fluffy – and about as troubling – as Miracle Whip.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “Of course, this is the stuff of suspense thrillers, but writer-director Steve De Jarnatt sets an unsure pace that tries our patience. It seems he’s not committed to his story or his characters, but to the idea that he is saying something profound – which he isn’t.”

While Miracle Mile didn’t make much of an impact when it first came out, its influence can be seen most recently in the monster movie Cloverfield (2008), whose significant plot points mirror the ones in De Jarnatt’s film rather closely. During the ‘80s, there was a very real, tangible threat of all-out nuclear war with people like Ronald Reagan threatening to wage war if provoked by the Russians. Miracle Mile taps into these feelings of fear and paranoia to startling effect, all under the guise of a taut thriller. To his credit, De Jarnatt doesn’t sell out and instead takes things to their logical conclusion, which probably killed its commercial prospects, but the film is better for it. The truth is that we are still just as close to being annihilated by nuclear war and this makes Miracle Mile as relevant now as it was back in the day.


SOURCES

Emerson, Jim. “The End of the World – as Miracle Mile Knows It.” Orange County Register. May 28, 1989.

Richardson, John M. “Miracle Mile Made with Slowly Measured Steps.” Los Angeles Daily News. May 28, 1989.

Taylor, Rumsey. “Miracle Mile Q&A with Anthony Edwards and Steve De Jarnatt.” Doomsday Film Festival. November 3, 2011.

7 comments:

  1. Absolutely wonderful write-up for this little gem, J.D. Being a native-Angeleno and lover of cinema, it’s in my DNA to be drawn to great film that uses my hometown of Los Angeles as a distinct character in the telling of a story. MIRACLE MILE even managed to capture a well-defined period AND one of the most recognizable neighborhoods that make up the vast number in our well-known sprawl. It's easily one of the very few that met the criteria in a beautifully odd mashup of romantic comedy and apocalyptic thriller. Well done, my friend.

    p.s., if you go to my site where I reblogged your article, you'll see the pictures I took yesterday of Johnie's Coffee Shop and the corner of Wilshire/Fairfax where all of this turned.

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  2. I loved this big little film. I rented from a video store back in the video store hey day. I was blown away by the emotional content and the subject of nuclear annihilation always weighed heavy.

    But the actors are so good with their material, so sincere, it's hard not to love this little film.

    Funny story J.D., years ago, I thought so much of the film I recommended it to a couple we were hanging out with one Friday night so that we could all watch it together. I was obliterated as they all made fun of my movie choice. I never lived it down in the months to follow. My friends singlehandedly ribbed me on it and torn down the film. Bottom line is that it was probably not mainstream enough for most audiences. I seemed to get it but it was lost on everyone else. That's a shame.

    Anyway, despite what those close-minded peeps have to say, I'm right there with you and Michael, the film buffs, to note this is a terrific little diamond in the rough.

    I enjoyed your coverage on this and will need to grab a DVD copy sometime since it's unlikely we'll see it on Blu-Ray.

    Cheers.

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  3. By the way, loved all of the back story and history to this one you provided. I was unaware of it. Thank you.

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  4. Great review, J.D.– absolutely love this movie; it's sort of the logical endpoint of the "long, endless night" 80s black comedic subgenre seen in AFTER HOURS, INTO THE NIGHT, VAMP, etc. where one bad thing leads to another, which leads to another... only here, the specter of The Bomb infuses the film with some genuine, existential weight. It makes for the kind of brilliant home viewing experience whereupon afterward you just shut off the TV and silently stare at the wall for a while in a state of shock. In other words: my kind of movie!

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  5. Thanks so very much for bringing this one back to life, JD. Recall catching it at a UK film fest back in the day, and it was the hit of the festival. Hopefully it will re-surface on Blu at some stage. Great review, and nice input from leOpard too.

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  6. Still gettin' it done, brother.

    Gotta call bullshit on Chris Dafoe (I am SHOCKED this is the first I've heard of him, considering such glorious insights). . .fluffy? Not troubling? I kinda think he left after the first 30 minutes or so, cause I still remember seeing this for the first time and being surprised how dark it got (I know, I was watching a movie about impending nuclear destruction, but still).

    Secondly. . .I love this flick, rented it on VHS at least ten times over the years (time to finally find a copy!), and showed it to many friends. Currently, I do own Cloverfield and think it's great. So, how the hell do I never make that connection? I'm amazed, man -- THIS is why I will always read well-written, intelligent, thoughtful pieces about cinema for the rest of my life. New insight into movies, especially when you care. . .people can keep crack.

    I got the REAL dope right here. Thanks, my Pusher Man. . .lol. . .

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  7. le0pard13:

    Thanks so much for the kind words, my friend! Nice to hear of the personal connection you have to this film. Loved the pictures on your site of the Coffee Shop and the corner of Wilshire/Fairfax. So very cool.


    The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Good call on the actors. They really go a long way in selling the premise and get you invested in the plights of their characters. Thanks for sharing that story. Such a shame that your friends weren't into the film. It definitely isn't for everyone, but for those who tap into its vibe, the film is rich with rewards. As always, thank you for the compliments.


    Sean Gill:

    Thanks, my friend! Good call on its affinity with AFTER HOURS, INTO THE NIGHT, etc. Yeah, they do seem to belong to the same sub-genre. And yes, the film does linger long after you watch it. That ending gets me every time.


    Steve Langton:

    Yeah, I'd love to see it appear on Blu. I think there's an issue of who owns the rights, but hopefully some day. Thanks for the comments!


    Albert Muller:

    Heh! Thanks for the kind words, my friend! Yeah, Dafoe missed the boat on this film. I don't understand his take on it AT ALL! I had no idea of how closely CLOVERFIELD rips off MIRACLE MILE until I read a review comparing the two and it is pretty spooky.

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