Miracle Mile is a fantastic thriller born of the apocalyptic paranoia of the late eighties — the last vestiges of Reagan-era Cold War. It’s directed by Steve DeJarnatt (whose previous film, Cherry 2000, is a futuristic romance about a guy who discovers love while on a journey to find a replacement for his sex robot) and stars a pre-ER Anthony Edwards and ‘brat packer’ Mare Winningham.
Edwards plays Harry Washello, a young trombone player who “meets cute” with Winningham’s Julie. Harry and Julie have the kind of whirlwind all-in-one-afternoon storybook romance montage that only occurs in movies rapidly needing to get to their Inciting Incident. After museums, carousels, and lobsters, Harry decides Julie’s “the one” and vice versa. They plan their first real date, later that evening. Harry decides to get some shuteye before picking Julie up at the diner she waits tables at, so he sets his alarm clock.
Things go awry, however, and he wakes up in the middle of the night, long past their date. He rushes down to the diner in hopes she’s still there. She’s not. He leaves her a message apologizing for missing their date from a nearby phone booth (when they still had them–kids, ask your parents about these). A few moments later, the phone rings back. Except it’s not Julie, it’s a wrong number from a soldier in a missile silo, who has just about the worst news imaginable…
Upon hearing this, Harry is resolute, with a singular goal in mind–find Julie, and somehow get her to safety. From this point on, the rest of the film occurs in real time. While this may not seem groundbreaking in the era of ‘24‘, in 1988, this was pretty innovative (although Hitchcock’s Rope and Zinnemann’s High Noon pioneered this technique). The next sixty minutes of the film takes on a wildly different tone, right down to its final scenes (which I will spoil a little later in this article).
Harry attempts to describe the phone call to the late-night denizens of the diner. No one believes him at first. At this point the movie’s tone devolves into a paranoiac, claustrophobic thriller– the type I usually identify with dark comedies such as After Hours, Into the Night, The Cable Guy, and U Turn, wherein the protagonist is trapped in an off-kilter world either by geography or time limitation, and everything he does to try and fix the situation only gets him in more trouble (a topic for a future post itself). As Harry continues to recruit people to help him, he discovers a “telephone game” effect occurring: all news and rumors about the impending incident, he learns, came indirectly from one source: him. The self-reflexive nature of this causes Harry to question his own credibility. Did he really understand the phone call correctly, or is he just a Chicken Little, inciting citywide mass hysteria?
His situation is either helped or harmed by some great supporting characters: Robert DoQui as the diner’s cook- a survivalist with an itchy trigger finger, Denise Crosby as Landa, a sexy businesswoman who happens to have frighteningly powerful military connections, Mykelti Williamson as a scared car thief, and “that guy” Kurt Fuller (voted most likely to be confused with other “that guy” Stephen Tobolowsky) who steals a pivotal scene as Landa’s rage-fueled go-to guy. Even Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile district itself becomes a character, with the film creating memorable icons of Johnie’s Coffee Shop and the Mutual Benefit Life building.
Edwards is perfectly cast as the type of reactive protagonist to whom bad things are always happening– a schlemazel as my bubbie would say. He’s constantly got that deer-in-headlights look about him. Winningham carries well the role of befuddled, newly-lovestruck Julie (I don’t know if I’d be so quick to run off with someone I’d only met the day before, but she sells it).
Before it was produced, it was a legendary film around Hollywood, voted by American Film magazine as one of the 10 best unmade scripts. The main reason it remained unproduced was because DeJarnatt insisted on directing it himself. He intended the film’s anti-war message to be a “penance” to Tony Scott’s overtly militaristic Top Gun.
Comparisons to ‘Cloverfield‘ (2008)
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While Miracle Mile may have indirectly inspired disaster films such as Volcano and Right At Your Door, some of the comparisons made between Miracle Mile and Matt Reeves’ 2008 monster movie Cloverfield are too eerie to deny.
|Harry and Julie have an accelerated courtship period, including a trip to Santa Monica pier’s Pacific Park, before disaster strikes.||Rob and Beth have only been together for about a month (all in flashback), including a trip to Coney Island, before the monster attacks.|
|Once Harry gets the phone call, the remainder of the film occurs in real time.||Except for the flashbacks. the entire film occurs in real time, as discovered on a found camcorder.|
|The nuclear blast has the potential of destroying all Los Angeles (if not the world)||The Cloverfield monster has the potential of destroying all New York (if not the world)|
|Harry initially escapes with a large group, but decides he needs to go back to rescue Julie.||Rob initially escapes with a large group, but decides he needs to go back to rescue Beth once he receives her phone call.|
|Harry fights through throngs of panicked citizens to reach Julie.||Rob fights through throngs of panicked citizens, headed in the other direction, to reach Beth.|
|Ending Spoilers! Hidden text below:||Ending Spoilers! Hidden text below:|
|Harry and Julie escape in a helicopter, the helicopter is struck by the blast and crashes in Hancock Park, where presumably they die sinking into the La Brea Tar Pits.||Rob and Beth escape in a helicopter, the helicopter is struck by the monster and crashes in Central Park, where their fate is unknown, but it’s presumed they die.|
|The film ends with an explosion blast, which fades to white.||The last scene ends with an explosion blast, which cuts to the remaining Coney Island footage.|
DeJarnatt’s cautionary tale was a welcome antidote to the testosterone-fueled blockbusters that glutted the eighties, and demonstrates with striking directness that in the end, the only thing with any permanence is love.