Sunday, September 13, 2015

Miracle Mile (1989)

Y'know, considering MIRACLE MILE's subject matter, whoever decided on "A Welcome Blast!" for the pull quote there needs to be sat down and given a good talking-to. 

Director: Steven de Jarnatt
Screenplay by: Steven de Jarnatt
Starring: Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, John Agar, Lou Hancock, Robert DoQui, Denise Crosby, Mykelti Williamson, Kurt Fuller, Brian Thompson, Earl Boen
Running Time: 88 minutes
Tagline: "There are 70 minutes to the end of the world. Where do you hide?"

You won’t realize it the first time you watch it, but MIRACLE MILE’s opening is a fantastic piece of misdirection. It introduces us to geeky jazz musician Harry Washello overlooking the city of Los Angeles as he’s playing his trombone and gazing longingly at a picture of his newfound love, Julie Peters. Harry’s narration establishes that this scene is taking place in media res and we’re settling in for his recounting of how he and Julie first met and the whirlwind romance that follows. Going by the rules of your standard cinematic romance, we’d eventually circle around to that opening moment again somewhere between the tearful break up and whatever crazy stunt Harry is going to pull to win Julie back. However, MIRACLE MILE, as it turns out, is most definitely not your standard movie and more importantly, we never return to that opening scene at any point. It leaves you wondering whether or not that happened or if it’s the film asking “What could have been?” Is this where things would have gone if they had played out as expected and Harry and Julie’s lives not been completely disrupted? Who knows? But it makes it clear that MIRACLE MILE loves to mess with you, leading you in one direction before gleefully sending you hurtling down another.

Pausing to note how eerily prophetic the backdrop for it is going to ultimately be, we see Harry (Anthony Edwards) and Julie (Mare Winningham) have their regulation meet cute during a tour of the La Brea Tar Pits’ George C. Page museum. Harry admits he’s never been one to have much luck with the ladies so you can imagine his elation at how well he’s hitting it off with her. The two end up spending the whole day together; attending a charity concert that Harry’s playing at, buying lobsters from a restaurant and releasing them back into the ocean (“FREEDOM! HORRIBLE FREEDOM!”), rides on the carousel; the usual quirky boy-meets-girl montage. Only an awkward encounter with Julie’s estranged grandparents (John Agar and Lou Hancock) puts a bit of a damper on the good mood but doesn’t stop Harry and Julie from making plans to go dancing later that night, right after Julie’s finished her shift at the diner where she works. Unfortunately, a freak accident knocks out the power in Harry’s building, meaning his alarm doesn’t go off when it’s supposed to and by the time he makes it to the diner, a heartbroken Julie is long gone. Desperate to explain himself and make things up with her, Harry calls her on the pay phone outside the diner but only gets her answering machine. Before Harry can head back into the diner for an early breakfast, the phone rings again and he jumps on it, hoping that it’s Julie.

It ain’t Julie and this is where MIRACLE MILE really shifts gears and gives us the biggest tonal swerve in a movie this side of DUCK YOU SUCKER and FROM DUSK ‘TIL DAWN.  The panicked voice on the other end belongs to a soldier stationed at a missile silo somewhere in North Dakota who dialed the wrong number trying to get in touch with his father in Orange County. From what Harry can decipher of his frantic ravings, something’s gone wrong and the warheads have been launched. In fifty minutes, they’re going to hit Russia and in an hour and ten minutes, the U.S.S.R’s retaliatory strike will hit L.A. At first, Harry is convinced that he’s the victim of a random prank caller, but when he hears the sound of gunfire and a sinister voice tells him to ignore everything he’s heard and to go back to sleep, he realizes this may be the real thing after all. World War III could very well be on its way and convincing anyone of this and more importantly, getting to Julie so the two of them can get the hell out of Dodge, becomes Harry's number one priority. From here, MIRACLE MILE switches over to real-time for its last hour and ten minutes and takes on a hazy, fever dream-like feel, as though we've become trapped in Harry's rapidly escalating nightmare. The film will play its cards close to its chest, leaving you wondering for much of its running time whether the phone call is real or if Harry, in his own words, is being another Chicken Little, kicking over dominoes and causing chaos in the lives of those he comes across. When we finally do get a concrete yes or no answer to what is going on...well, you'll have to see for yourself.

The switch over from a sunny romantic jaunt to paranoid end-of-the-world thriller is a difficult trick to pull off, so credit to writer / director Steven De Jarnatt for doing so without a solitary hitch. He penned the script for MIRACLE MILE in 1978 but despite the positive response to it, his refusal to change the ending meant he couldn't get it produced for nearly ten years. (At one point it was going to be a segment of the TWILIGHT ZONE movie.) This delay may actually have worked out in MIRACLE MILE'S favor, however. The film's 1989 release date, right in the ending stretch of the Cold War, makes MIRACLE MILE feel like an exclamation point, a final word on the past decade. Here's everything we were in the eighties; here's how bloody terrified we were that it was all going to be gone in an instant, swept up in a nuclear fireball courtesy of the U.S.S.R. Though the two film's are wildly different in terms of tone and approach to storytelling, I can't help but be reminded of John Sayles' THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET. Both are snapshots of an incarnation of a major city that no longer exist; pastel-and-neon Los Angeles for MILE; seedy, graffiti covered New York for BROTHER; their protagonists' odysseys cross-sections of the lives and experiences of the different people who inhabited them. I would have loved to have visited these places; wandered their streets just to see what I could see. Money, distance and the passage of years have made that hard if not outright impossible, so I'm much obliged when I can find a movie that captures a place and time so vividly you feel like you could crawl in the screen and live there.

(Keeping with the whole "snapshot" idea, I enjoy how the film's cast features a plethora of recognizable faces from eighties pop culture. Not only Anthony Edwards, who was coming off the success of REVENGE OF THE NERDS and TOP GUN, and Mare Winningham, queen of eighties TV movies, but keep an eye on the rest. You'll spot the chief from ROBOCOP (Robert DoQui), Henrietta from EVIL DEAD 2 (Lou Hancock), Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), one of the Sorels from STREETS OF FIRE (Mykelti Williamson), Vasquez from ALIENS (Jenette Goldstein) and Dr. Silberman from THE TERMINATOR. (Earl Boen) Even the Night Slasher himself  (Brian Thompson) puts in an appearance.)

As much as it is as love letter to Los Angeles, MIRACLE MILE a movie about fate, that it doesn't matter that you just met this great girl or had this child or got this promotion; things are going to happen that are going to be out of your control. It's an idea we don't like to think on that much, because it's just so big. That's what makes MIRACLE MILE so damned effective. By keeping its stakes on a smaller, more personal scale; get the girl, get out of the city; and leaving its threat off-stage for much of its running time so it can focus on them, it succeeds better at selling you on what's at risk and really digging into the whys and hows of people's reactions to knowing what's coming for them. This wouldn't have been possible if it started dropping real estate on everybody's heads from the word go. How Harry reacts is one of the things that makes the film so interesting, Going back to my earlier statement about MIRACLE MILE loving to play with your expectations, take a look at him. He's this wholesome, nice fellow, the straight white guy out to rescue the woman he loves. By the way popular culture has coded us to think, he should be the hero, right? Matter of fact, Harry is one of the film's most self-centered characters, willing to lie, manipulate and even coerce others if it can get them to work for his benefit. He even does this to Julie, deliberately keeping her in the dark about what's going on until he can get her to safety. We still root for him, poor sap's just in over his head, after all. It's when you compare Harry's behavior to the other characters that it become even more significant. Who keeps calm and organizes an evacuation? A woman. The one person who is running around L.A. trying to rescue someone for selfless reasons? A black man, a minor character who returns for a truly tragic send off. Hell, the most heroic character in MIRACLE MILE is a gay helicopter pilot. Considering how often characters like this were depicted as sidekicks, jokes, crazies and cannon fodder in eighties movies, (and today, really) it's unique to find a movie that sympathizes so much with the misfits and outliers.

In the original screenplay, the main characters of MIRACLE MILE were intended to be an older couple. Subsequent drafts moved them into supporting roles, that of Julie's grandparents. It's fitting then, that they quickly realize what it takes Harry the whole movie to understand: you can't run from the inevitable. Sometimes all you can do is find something worth holding onto as you wait for what's coming. The conclusion is an incredibly emotional one and difficult to pin down; definitely not a happy one but I wouldn't call it hopeless either. A lot of apocalyptic fiction doesn't understand that there needs to be slivers of light amidst all the horror or you're just being a depressing slog. MIRACLE MILE understands this and that is what gives its ending its punch, which is not lessened one bit by repeat viewings. I watched the film multiple times in preparation for this, and damned if I didn't need to compose myself when the credits rolled every single time.

A Little Something Extra:

Tangerine Dream - "Teetering Scales." Continuing with the whole "80's in summation" theme, MIRACLE MILE features a great, gloomy synth score by Tangerine Dream, who supplied the soundtrack for several notable genre films from that decade.

Want to know what some friends of Psychoplasmics thought of MIRACLE MILE? Tim Lehnerer tackles it over at Checkpoint-Telstar and Jessica Ritchey talks about what it means to her personally over at

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