Every once in awhile while watching a film I’ll find myself asking “how in the hell did this ever get made?” It has nothing to do with a film being bad. Bad films I don’t wonder about. Sad truth is, most Hollywood films are pretty bad, so I’ve come to accept it as par for the course. No, the question comes up if a film seems too smart, too dark, too original or just too damned strange. Even if some small element of a movie fits one of those descriptions I have to wonder how it got past the studio committees so notorious for sucking the life out of scripts.
The question came up again with writer/director Steve De Jarnatt’s 1988 apocalyptic romantic comedy Miracle Mile. The answer was the same as it usually is. The film languished with Warner Brothers for years, they loved the script but wanted changes, wanted to make it on a much grander scale and didn’t want De Jarnatt to direct. He took the script elsewhere but it only seemed to disturb and upset most people. For a while it was considered as the centerpiece of John Landis’ Twilight Zone movie, but when Spielberg came onboard and wanted to change the ending, De Jarnatt backed away (and if you recall what happened during the filming of the Twilight Zone movie, it seems all the more ironic, considering).
Eventually, almost a decade after it was written, he finally went the independent route and made the film he wanted for $3.7 million. Interesting thing is, by coming out when it did, as both the Reagan era and the Cold War were coming to a close, Miracle Mile became a film that not only embraced all the stylistic hallmarks of ‘80s filmmaking, but also embodied all the paranoia we’d been living with for the previous decade and brought both to an abrupt and horrifying conclusion. If it had come out a few short years later, it would have seemed laughably outdated.
It’s a very slick film. It’s shot through the same blue-gray filter and has the same electronic score that you’ll find in virtually every film made in the ‘80s (though in this case the score comes from the legendary Tangerine Dream). The clothes and hair mark the era as well, but not insanely so. Shot on location in and around LA, for the first 20 minutes, Miracle Mile is a straight, traditional romantic comedy, complete with voiceover. Harry (Anthony Edwards) is a lonely jazz musician who meets diner waitress Julie (brat pack alumnus Mare Winningham) at the Le Brea Tar Pits. They go all googly-eyed in a very wholesome manner. He even meets her estranged grandparents (Lou Hancock and classic sci fi star John Agar) before they agree to meet later that night when her shift ends at the diner. As is obligatory in romantic comedies, he oversleeps and gets to the diner three hours late, only to learn that an unsurprisingly upset Julie went home a long time ago. There he makes the mistake of picking up a ringing pay phone thinking it’s Julie. Instead, on the other end is a frantic young soldier trying to tell his father a nuclear war is underway and that the missiles will hit in 70 minutes.
From that moment on the film takes place in real time and switches gears from romantic comedy to paranoid suspense thriller. Unsure whether it was a prank call or the real thing, Harry enters the diner and checks with the motley crew of drunks, bums, transvestites and other customers. A severe businesswoman named Landa (Denise Crosby) has certain connections and although she can’t get direct confirmation, it’s starting to look like it wasn’t a crank call.
It’s four in the morning, no one else seems to know that LA is about to be obliterated, so the crew from the diner hop in their cars and speed off to the airport in the hopes of catching a flight out in time.
Harry, being a good hearted soul, knows he can’t leave without Julie. Landa tells him there will be a helicopter waiting atop a nearby building that will take him straight to the airport, but he has to be there in about 45 minutes or it will leave without him. He then sets off on an odyssey of his own to find her and get her to the airport before the world ends. Along the way he meets your assorted LA characters; thieves, drug addicts, health nuts, cops; as the panic slowly begins to spread. The question remains, are the bombs really falling or did maybe he misunderstand that call?
In many ways it’s reminiscent of Scorsese’s 1985 black comedy After Hours, but ultimately much darker and more terrifying. Like that film it’s realistic, but with all the qualities of a nightmare. By keeping the audience as much in the dark as Harry and Julie, however, De Jarnatt is able to ratchet up the tension and frustration to almost unbearable levels. All the while the clock keeps ticking and all we know is they’ve got to get to the airport on time. You want to tell yourself okay, it’s just a damned movie, right? A romantic comedy, even! So of course it’s all going to work out in the final minutes and there’ll be that happy ending with the two of them on the beach or something.
But then De Jarnatt grabs the wheel and swings it hard to the left, revealing himself to be an unexpectedly subversive filmmaker. He sets things up in a very traditional manner, gives the audience something they’ve seen a hundred times, gives them something they think they know, makes them comfortable, then twists the knife. And that’s when I start asking myself how it is a film like this ever got made.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that, despite critical acclaim and having been nominated for several awards, the film died a quick and unceremonious death at the box office. It seems audiences preferred being comfortable and sedate to having that knife twisted in their guts.
So maybe the studios were all right after all and he should’ve tacked on an easy, happy ending. But you ask me Miracle Mile does have a happy ending if you put it in a larger context. In a way, the film is saying, “yeah, this is what the ‘80s looked like and felt like, this is what we’ve all been living with every day for the past decade; these clothes, this music, this fear; but now kaboom and hallelujah it’s finally all over.”