August 6, 2020
Movies You Missed:
By Jeb Bohn
The prospect of nuclear war has always fascinated and terrified me. I’ve also always been fond of films that take place over the course of a single night. Miracle Mile captures both of these elements and delivers a product that is completely engrossing.
That said, let’s take a look.
This film is a prime example of how long the process of moving from screenplay to film can be. The screenplay (penned by De Jarnatt) was named one of the top ten unmade screenplays in 1983. The writer’s unwillingness to compromise on the film he wanted to make kept the project in purgatory for years. I can’t imagine the frustration, but you have to respect the filmmaker’s unwillingness to compromise on his vision.
Originally intended to be a project he could direct for Warner Bros., the studio showed reluctance to entrust the film to a relatively inexperienced director. Following three years with no progress, De Jarnatt spent $25,000 to purchase the script. After a few tweaks, Warner made him an offer to buy it back for $400,000.
De Jarnatt declined.
With the backing of a studio that didn’t seek to soften the stark tone, production began in March of 1987.
As the film opens, we’re introduced to Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards), a jazz musician in Los Angeles. While visiting the La Brea Tar Pits, Harry meets—and falls for—Julie Peters (Mare Winningham). The two hit it off and the two spend the afternoon together. Things go so well that the pair make plans to meet up after Julie’s shift ends at midnight.
Harry returns to his motel to rest and freshen up after having a smoke on the balcony. Unfortunately, his carelessly discarded cigarette causes a power failure.
Once Harry wakes up, he soon realizes that he slept through their date. Afraid he’s ruined his shot at love, he rushes down to the diner where Julie works only to find out that she’s long since left. Using the payphone outside (remember, this was 1988) he calls to apologize and is met with an answering machine.
As he turns to head back into the diner, the payphone rings. Hoping Julie is calling, Harry answers. Instead, the caller is a young military man named Chip who says he’s currently stationed at a missile silo. He frantically states that they are 70 minutes from all-out nuclear war and the end of mankind. A confused Harry dismisses it as a joke; Chip, who misdialed while trying to warn his father, pleads with Harry to tell his family.
Harry hears men enter and question Chip as to what he is doing, sending the young man into a panic. Gunfire erupts and another man comes on the line and tells Harry to forget what he’s just heard and go back to sleep.
Dazed, Harry re-enters the diner, where his behavior grows increasingly erratic. He eventually gets the attention of Landa (Denise Crosby), a mysterious woman who appears to verify what Harry is saying. What’s more, she has connections that can ferry the handful of people at the diner to Antarctica, possibly the only safe haven following a large-scale nuclear attack.
The group—using the diner’s catering truck—set off to meet Landa’s associates. Upon realizing that they are driving away from Julie’s apartment, Harry jumps from the vehicle. Another car approaches and he quickly holds the driver at gunpoint.
Reluctant to tell the truth to the man, named Wilson (Mykelti Williamson), Harry opts for a story involving a meltdown at a local power plant. After a few miscues, the pair reach Julie’s apartment complex. Harry tells Wilson to wait in the car until he returns. Wilson protests, saying that he has to get his sister, but ultimately relents as Harry sets off.
Harry finds Julie and the pair warn her grandparents of the impending danger. They then find out that Wilson is gone, leaving them without a means of meeting the others at the airport. The pair set off through the streets of Los Angeles and Harry begins to wonder if he’s played the role of Chicken Little.
With the sun rising and more of the city’s inhabitants begin to wake, panic escalates. As Harry and Julie rush toward salvation, they’re met with rising chaos in the streets. Civilization is unraveling at a frightening speed.
Why You Should Watch
If you have any interest in films depicting nuclear conflict, this is definitely one worth checking out. The tonal shift once Harry answers the fateful call can be jarring but the film ultimately pays it off.
Edwards and Winningham do very well in their roles. The rest of the cast can be hit or miss, though the acting never diminishes the experience. The biggest shortcoming is that De Jarnatt’s script is so ambitious that the film’s $3.7 million budget proved inadequate.
That said, the film stands on its own and tells a compelling story, one wrought with suspense, romance, and a worldwide apocalypse. I won’t give away the ending aside from saying that it ties everything up and does so in a satisfying way.
Bear in mind this isn’t your stereotypical Hollywood movie—and I don’t say that derogatorily—which is one reason its development stretched on so long. It’s a unique vision, unflinching in its approach. If you check it out (or have already seen it) leave a comment and share your thoughts.