‘Miracle Mile’ still evokes nuclear nightmares 30 years later

PT writer/director worked to retain creative control

Posted 7/3/19
For this week’s cult classics of cinema review, we’re celebrating the 30-year anniversary of a film that’s become all too relevant again, for all the wrong reasons, that was written and directed by a local talent.

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‘Miracle Mile’ still evokes nuclear nightmares 30 years later

PT writer/director worked to retain creative control

Posted
For this week’s cult classics of cinema review, we’re celebrating the 30-year anniversary of a film that’s become all too relevant again, for all the wrong reasons, that was written and directed by a local talent. Port Townsend’s Steve De Jarnatt co-wrote the 1983 Canadian comedy “Strange Brew” alongside Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis, who played beer-drinking brothers Bob and Doug McKenzie, and he directed “Cherry 2000,” the 1987 sci-fi vehicle for Melanie Griffith. He also wrote episodes of “The X-Files,” “Aeon Flux,” “American Gothic” and “Poltergeist: The Legacy,” and directed episodes of everything from “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “ER” to “Nash Bridges” and “Lizzie McGuire,” so it’s not an overstatement to say he was responsible for a significant chunk of my media upbringing. The 1989 American release of De Jarnatt’s magnum opus, “Miracle Mile,” just barely beat the actual end of the Cold War to the punch, because no one wanted to make the uncompromisingly downbeat film he’d written, which left it languishing in development hell for 10 years. In 1983, it was chosen by American Film magazine as one of the 10 best unmade screenplays. Even though he almost missed the opportunity to chronicle this slice of history while it was still contemporary, De Jarnatt was right to wait, because what he hammered out is a neon-hued, Tangerine Dream-scored middle-of-the-night fever dream that I guarantee will haunt the soul of anyone who remembers the end decade of the Cold War. What’s so brilliant about the story is that it starts out as a completely different type of film, a meet-cute between an endearing couple in the big city, with no shortage of quirky side-characters, before De Jarnatt, without warning, flips the switch into stark, existential terror. And yet, even in the midst of lurching from a winsome rom-com into a nail-biting nuclear war thriller, the film retains a thematic consistency. It begins and ends in Los Angeles’ “Miracle Mile.” It takes place over the course of a single day and night — indeed, once the script changes direction, it takes place almost entirely in real time — and even in its seemingly innocuous opening, it underscores the relative brevity of humanity’s time on Earth. Jazz musician Harry (Anthony Edwards) and diner waitress Julie (Mare Winningham) meet one sunny day at the La Brea Tar Pits, and fall instantly in love through a whirlwind courtship that includes her taking in a performance of his traveling band, and him meeting her parents, who have stayed stubbornly separated for years, due to old disagreements they were never able to put to bed. Harry promises to meet up with Julie at the end of her shift at midnight, but due to a Rube Goldberg-level series of contrivances, his power goes out, Julie goes home from work and takes some sleeping pills to get over her heartbreak at being stood up, and Harry doesn’t wake up until 4 a.m. Harry rushes to Julie’s diner to find her already gone, and leaves her a message on the pay phone outside to call him back, so when the phone rings, Harry is surprised to hear a frantic young man on the other end of the line, calling from a military base, thinking he dialed his father’s number instead, and warning that nuclear war is about to break out in less than 70 minutes. Anthony Edwards costarred in “ER” and “Top Gun,” but he’s no one’s idea of an action hero, and it’s to this film’s benefit, because he perfectly evokes the nearly paralyzed panic of a well-meaning but unremarkable guy caught in a crisis situation — in this case, the question, “What do you do when you have good reason to believe that the world’s going to end in an hour and a few minutes?” If you’re Harry, the answer is, “Try to find the woman I love, and drag her with me, still drowsy from sleeping pills, in time to catch a helicopter flight out of L.A. before the first missiles are due to hit,” but the obstacles that crop up in his path are darkly reminiscent of Bill Murray’s quest to escape New York City in the more lighthearted 1990 heist film “Quick Change.” In “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” Ray Bradbury persuasively made the case that 3 a.m. constitutes “the soul’s midnight,” but Steve De Jarnatt makes one hell of an argument for 4 a.m. instead, with his portrayal of the echoing emptiness of Los Angeles’ skyscraper canyons in the pre-dawn hours of the late 1980s. And along the way, as Harry’s claims of imminent nuclear Armageddon start to circulate among the city’s population like an epidemic hysteria, De Jarnatt gives the knife an extra twist, by hinting that Harry himself might have been misled, and simply wound up doing further damage to an already half-mad metropolis. While Mare Winningham’s role is a touch underwritten, she injects the character of Julie with a lively enough personality in the rom-com opening reel of this film to engender the audience’s enduring sympathies after her sleeping pills leave her in a state of half-conscious confusion through much of the remainder of the movie. “Miracle Mile” benefits from a well-rounded supporting cast to match the talent of its leads, with notable appearances by Denise Crosby (fresh off “Star Trek: The Next Generation”), Alan Rosenberg (a few years before his stint on “L.A. Law”) and Mykelti Williamson (yes, Bubba from “Forrest Gump”), with a surprisingly nuanced turn by musclebound Brian Thompson, and an absolutely hilarious exhibition of apocalypse-inspired wild abandon from the normally sedate Kurt Fuller. The final lines of this film are as beautiful as they are heartbreaking, and in a weird way, they impart a sense of humanistic optimism, without actually succumbing to “a happy ending.” Watch this film, and I promise you’ll never forget it, whether you want to or not.

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