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‘MIRACLE MILE’ And The Taste Of Fear

April 25, 2017

Miracle Mile is a small but remarkable film from 1988, written and directed by Steve de Jarnatt. The story begins with a meet-cute romance between Harry and Julie, played by Anthony Edwards (Top Gun, Zodiac) and Mare Winningham (St. Elmo’s Fire). Miracle Mile moves at such a brisk pace, that the relationship is established by end of the opening credits, with hardly a line of dialogue. The sweetness of these two actors carries through to the end, and helps the film to retain its emotional core as the tension rises.

(Minor spoilers follow, but I won’t give away the ending)

Miracle Mile 1988 Harry Julie

Harry and Julie spend time getting to know each other after meeting at the La Brea Tar Pits. They make plans to go on an official first date after Julie gets off work at midnight. Harry oversleeps and heads to the rendezvous point at Johnie’s Diner three-and-a-half hours late, unsure of what else to do (by the way, how did we ever get by before cell phones?).

The streets of L.A. are empty and eerie at 3:45 a.m. and the typical late-night crowd has congregated at Johnie’s. Harry tries calling Julie from a pay phone without success. After hanging up, the phone rings and Harry answers. The person on the other end of the line is in hysterics about an impending nuclear war. Harry assumes it’s a prank but can’t shake his sense of panic.

Harry phonebooth Miracle Mile 1988

The rest of the story unspools over the next hour and change, very nearly in real time. Harry spends a wild night and wilder morning trying to reunite with Julie before getting out of the city, on the off-chance that the call turns out to be genuine.

Harry Miracle Mile 1988

Miracle Mile isn’t exactly science fiction. Genre-wise, it’s more like a man-on-the-street perspective on what was happening in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Then throw in touches from Red Dawn, Mad Max, and also any number of John Carpenter movies. It’s a nuclear apocalypse movie sure, but one firmly grounded in reality; a product of the very, very late Cold War era—one of the last of it’s kind, really.

Despite maintaining a basis in reality, Miracle Mile manages to effectively mix and match genres, thanks in part to its setting. The early scene at the diner has a surreal, and perhaps David Lynch-ian flavor. The “they-only-come-out-at-night” diner denizens might remind you of the various nightcrawlers from Blue Velvet. Once the tension and paranoia begin to ramp up, and as the empty streets grow livelier, de Jarnatt evokes the work of Carpenter and George A. Romero. Similar to Walter Hill’s The Warriors, it elevates a realistic scenario into something more grand, maybe even mythic in feel.

Harry Washello Miracle Mile Fear

The film maintains the possibility that this could all be real or a hoax until deep into the 87-minute runtime. This is a credit to de Jarnatt’s directing. He manages to transition seamlessly from romance to foreboding sparseness, before serving up outright panic, and a crescendo of chaos and violence. With Miracle Mile, he really captures a magical atmosphere in which anything feels possible, the kind that occurs almost exclusively in the wee hours of the night.

Miracle Mile doesn’t dive too deep into Cold War commentary, but it does have something to say about the epidemiology of fear. While the film is certainly driven by society’s worst fears of mutually assured destruction during the Cold War, it is also a commentary on fear itself. Several characters in Miracle Mile leap to drastic, violent action, even without any proof of impending doom. Harry generally stays level-headed, but even he goes well beyond what we imagine him being capable of at the beginning of the film. When the characters’ fears take more concrete form later on, the chaos has already reached a fever pitch and people are literally dying in the streets. That the film manages to end on a bizarrely touching note in the face of oblivion is one of its’ amazing qualities.

Miracle Mile 1988 Johnie's

Anthony Edwards is particularly good in this movie. The protagonist, Harry, is a dynamic character and allows Edwards to really leave an impression. Best known for all-around good guy roles like Maverick’s reliable wing man “Goose” in Top Gun, and police inspector and family man Bill Armstrong in Zodiac, Edwards stepped into the similarly sweet-natured role of Harry Washello in Miracle Mile. His inherent decency is a irrepressible as ever, and that quality makes it all the more impactful when the plot fires up and Harry slowly begins to lose his mind.

Despite the late-Cold War milieu, a unique combination of tones and emotions, along with a steady, disciplined increase in tension, allows Miracle Mile to age exceptionally well. The journey this film takes the viewer on is extraordinary and well deserving of remembrance, even some 29 years later.


From → Film Reviews

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