Cast: Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, Mykelti Williamson, John Agar, and Denise Crosby
Director: Steve De Jarnatt
87 minutes (15) 1988
Widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Arrow DVD Region 2
Review by J.C. Hartley
Reviewing Hugh Walpole’s second novel, Maradick At Forty, in the Times Literary Supplement of May 1910, Claud Schuster charged the author with having “no clear idea of the difference of the respective functions of comedy and melodrama.” Something of that criticism might well apply to Steve De Jarnatt in writing and directing Miracle Mile, as at times I wasn’t sure if I was watching a wryly satirical black comedy rather than an apocalyptic thriller.
In the early 1980s Miracle Mile spent time as one of those famous unmade screenplays of the kind that Empire magazine now features in order to fill up space in their glossy unreadable magazine (they will print white copy against coloured backgrounds). De Jarnatt wanted to direct the film himself but, with only a writing credit on Strange Brew (1983), and directing credits on Cherry 2000 (1987), he struggled to get backing. Buying his screenplay out of development hell at Warners, De Jarnett eventually attracted funding from Hemdale and away he went. Getting back to Walpole, he described the novel Maradick At Forty as his attempt at writing genre, and De Jarnatt seems to have invented a whole new genre with Miracle Mile: the romantic apocalypse. Rom-apoc? Romcalypse?
The film starts with the Big Bang, or rather film and commentary from a documentary running at the George C. Page museum at La Brea Tar Pits where Harry (Anthony Edwards) spots the girl of his dreams Julie (Mare Winningham). Given that the museum teaches science and evolution its days must be numbered under the current administration. Apropos of nothing at all I read a report of one of J.K. Rowling’s recent Twitter spats in which an American fan wrote defending her, observing that the Earth was probably ‘thousands of years old’, you honestly can’t make this stuff up. Anyway, no such confusion at the George C. Page museum, as the fossils retrieved from the tar pits attest; I mention this as it’s a plot-point for later.
After stalking Julie around the museum Harry thinks he has lost sight of her, only for her to turn up, this evidently being a mutual attraction. A montage of romantic assignations follows. Harry’s character is an amalgam of youthful versions of Kevin Costner and Tom Hanks channelling James Stewart in The Glenn Miller Story (1954), he even plays trombone in a big band. Harry meets Julie’s grandfather Ivan, played by screen veteran John Agar, who went from starring alongside John Wayne in John Ford westerns like Fort Apache (1948), to roles in SF B-movies in the 1950s and 1960s. Julie lives with her grandmother Lucy who is estranged from Ivan, much to Julie’s distress.
Harry and Julie plan a date-night after which Julie promises him she’ll ‘screw those eyes blue’, at least that’s what I think she said. Harry returns to his hotel to rest up against the evening’s promised exertions, but the cigarette he discards is dropped down a vent by a bird and the resulting fire shorts out the hotel’s electrics. Due to the power cut, Harry’s alarm-clock fails to rouse him, although I’m sure it was a manual, he wakes in the early hours, and turns up outside the diner, where Julie works, too late for the date. Julie has been conveniently secretive about where she lives and Harry fails to get the information from her work colleague. Hanging around outside, Harry answers the phone ringing in a nearby booth, where a desperate caller, ringing from a missile base in North Dakota, and under the impression he has called his father, announces that the USA has launched a pre-emptive strike and a nuclear response is expected within some 50 minutes. As the horrified Harry listens the call is interrupted by machine-gun fire, and a new voice telling him to forget what he has heard and to go back home to sleep.
An understandably agitated Harry returns to the diner for some breakfast but then starts interrogating the other occupants to see if one of them might be the father of the caller. Eventually, he reveals the nature of the call he has overheard and the other diners respond either with alarm or outright scepticism. One of the diners, Landa (Denise Crosby, ‘Tasha Yar’ in Star Trek: The Next Generation) questions Harry about what the caller said and then makes a series of phone calls on her brick-sized mobile which confirm that certain prominent individuals are high-tailing it out of the US for the southern hemisphere. Landa claims she knows certain code-words and protocols because she used to date someone who moved in those circles, but she seems very well-informed and to have access to restricted information.
In fact, the whole presentation of Landa is heavy with frankly risible portent. On her arrival in the diner she boots up a computer in her briefcase and checks the stock exchange while studying what looks like the York Notes to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Relating the conversation she has had on her mobile she says she has asked someone if “the unthinkable has happened.” Whatever her back-story Landa provides the impetus for the next stage of the film, frankly ludicrous though it appears to be. She ascertains the next flights out of Los Angeles and corrals Fred the cook and the other customers to accompany her in the diner delivery van to the airport. She tells one of the diners and a waitress to make out a list of great minds and culturally important personages they will need to save in order to rebuild civilisation after the coming holocaust.
It is at this point that the film appears ready to lurch into comedy, especially as the delivery van bears the legend ‘Fat Boy Catering’, ‘Fat Man’ being the codename of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, ‘Little Boy’ being the code for the Hiroshima device. Is this all a dream? Is Harry still unconscious in his hotel? Evidently not. Fred refuses to wait while Harry picks up Julie, so Harry jumps from the van and using Fred’s .38 hijacks a driver, Wilson (Mykelti Williamson), to take him back to Julie’s apartment. After a contretemps at a gas station in which two police officers are accidentally killed, Harry and Wilson steal their police car and Wilson, believing the local power station to be in meltdown, leaves Harry to rescue his sister while Harry goes to get Julie. The news of the impending missile attack sees Ivan and Lucy reunited but rather than accompanying Harry and Julie they intend to spend their remaining minutes making up for lost time in each other’s company.
Landa has booked a helicopter to fly people to the airport from the pad on the Mutual Benefit Life Building but, while the chopper is there, the pilot has not turned up. Harry and Julie scour the streets asking people if they are registered helicopter pilots, which sounds ridiculous, and indeed is ridiculous, but this is L.A. so there’s probably every chance of getting an answer in the affirmative. Busting into a gym and blasting a dancercise class’s music centre, Harry does in fact find a pilot, played by go-to alien tough-guy actor Brian Thompson. Reunited, Harry and Julie witness the death of Wilson and his sister killed in a pursuit by the police, and Julie confronts Harry about his evidence of the imminent attack, which is now overdue.
As panic spreads in the city Harry begins to wonder if he was wrong and has inadvertently triggered the ensuing chaos. Using a phone booth, and correctly working out the number the mystery caller had intended to ring, Harry gets through to a man who confirms that his son does indeed work for the military on a missile base in North Dakota. Harry and Julie make it to the helipad just as the first missiles home in, the pilot takes off but is caught in the blast and the chopper goes down in the tar pits. As they are about to drown in tar Harry attempts to comfort Julie, telling her Superman could compress a lump of coal to form a diamond and that maybe a direct-hit will see them metamorphosise. Julie hopes that in the future they will be discovered preserved like the exhibits in the museum.
There is much about this film which is outrageously bad, the tone is uncertain and at times farcical and yet, largely playing in real time, it manages to be quite gripping. It’s interesting that a film playing on what the late great Salford comedian Al Read used to describe in his radio monologues as, living ‘under the shadow of the bomb’, should be released in the year the Berlin Wall came down, when for a little while at least we all felt a bit safer. In fact, nuclear aggression is less of a theme in the film than the burden of secret knowledge, and the desire to rescue your loved ones before random shit hits the fan. Imagine Invasion Of The Body Snatchers with less paranoia and a more selfish protagonist. The characters are ciphers, Harry, as said, is a Jimmy Stewart everyman and Julie is barely sketched-in, but they play their parts with such sincerity that it lends authenticity to an otherwise unlikely sequence of events. De Jarnatt seeds the screenplay with some quite subtle references, particularly the introduction of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow as Landa’s reading material. The epigraph to part one of that novel is a quote from Wernher ‘I bombed London and got away with it’ von Braun: “Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death.”
There are a host of DVD extras on this disc as befitting the cult movie we are told this has become. In Last Orders At Johnie’s, De Jarnatt discusses his career and making Miracle Mile. ‘Interview with Harry and Julie’, stars Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham, looking rather like middle-aged parents interviewed on Fox News in the aftermath of a tragedy, discuss their memories of making the film. Reunion At Johnie’s Diner, sees the cast reunited. Paul Haslinger, guitarist and keyboard-player with Tangerine Dream from 1985 to 1990, discusses the soundtrack in ‘Music of Tangerine Dream’. ‘Excavation from the editing room’ is a compilation of out-takes from the dailies. The alternate ending sees a pair of animated diamonds appear on-screen after the black-out and before the credits. There is also a ‘storyboard to film comparison’, a trailer, and commentaries from the director and crew. A bit of a left-field, or indeed self-serving inclusion, is someone, perhaps De Jarnatt himself, reading the director’s short story Rubiaux Rising from the 2009 edition of The Best American Short Stories edited by Alice Sebold and published by Houghton-Mifflin.