The familiar cliche goes, "They don't make 'em like they used to." After watching the newly reissued offbeat thriller from 1988, Miracle Mile, my reaction is more like, "They've never made 'em like this -- even then." Sure, there are echoes of other cult-y '80s movies throughout Miracle Mile -- the plot involves a desperate man trying to make his way through the nocturnal underworld of a city after a date goes awry, as in After Hours, while the setting recalls the eerily desolated Los Angeles of Night of the Comet -- but this film's humor is much bleaker and sparser, and its plot is potentially the most fatalistic I've seen in American film outside of a straight-up horror movie.
If you are a fan of cult flicks and what I've said so far intrigues you, I suggest you stop reading now and just check out the movie. I turned on Miracle Mile only knowing the main cast (Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham) and the director (Steve De Jarnatt, Cherry 2000), and that seems like a pretty great way to approach it. The cast -- including numerous familiar faces in supporting roles -- is uniformly excellent, and De Jarnatt demonstrates that he just might be one of the great unsung speculative storytellers. So see Miracle Mile.
Okay, if you need a little more to go on, here's a bit of the story. Harry Washello (Edwards) is an average joe who thinks he might have just found the girl of his dreams, Julie Peters (Winningham), while visiting the La Brea Tar Pits. They hit it off, because they are both young people with old souls -- Harry plays trombone in an old-timey jazz band and Julie spends most of her time with one or the other of her estranged grandparents (John Agar and Lou Hancock). Harry agrees to pick Julie up for some late-night dancing after she gets off her shift at Johnie's Coffee Shop. He sets his alarm to wake him from a nap for his midnight rendezvous, but (since this is a movie) the power goes out, and he ends up being three and a half hours late.
At this point, the movie seems like it's prepping to set Harry off on a wild wee-hours adventure to prove his love for Julie. But the movie has something much more Twilight Zone-y in store for our protagonist. Arriving for his date at around 4 a.m. puts Harry in the position of answering the pay phone outside of Johnie's at exactly the moment when a fateful call comes in. A low-level worker in a missile silo in North Dakota thinks he's calling his dad to let him know that the launch sequence has been initiated and the US will nuke the Soviets in 50 minutes, with an expected retaliation in 70. At first, Harry thinks it might be a prank, but then he hears the man on the other end of the line get shot dead.
The rest of the film is meant to play out in real time, as Harry must figure out what to do with his 70 minutes before potential nuclear annihilation. He talks to the other early morning patrons of Johnie's -- which include Star Trek: The Next Generation's Denise Crosby, Robocop's Robert DoQui, and Natural Born Killers' O-Lan Jones -- most of whom come to believe Harry's story and decide to book it to the airport to get on a chartered flight out of town. Crosby's character, who is a powerful business woman, books a helicopter to fly out her friends from the top of a nearby skyscraper. One of the coffee shop cooks steals Harry's car, so he has to figure out a way to get Julie from her apartment building and back to the helicopter before it flies away or the bomb hits -- whichever comes first.
The smartest thing about Miracle Mile's set-up is arguably also its most counter-dramatic. The threat of nuclear attack creates a ticking clock for Harry, but it's a clock counting down to an unguaranteed moment that he can neither alter nor thwart exactly. Though the story plays out essentially in real time, director Steve De Jarnatt does not go the Hitchcockian route and make the audience supremely aware of the passage of every second to gradually ratchet up the tension. Instead, he creates a more chaotic sense of time, in which we know we're getting closer to the supposed launch but we don't if Harry has enough time to execute his plan or if he will be too late or if, in the end, none of it will even matter. The film also implicitly forces a new viewer to constantly question whether the information Harry got is true, especially as he spreads it to other people, like Julie's grandparents or a friendly thief played by Forrest Gump's Mykelti Williamson, and to question whether or not that makes Harry a greater instrument for destruction than this unconfirmed imminent bombing.
This storytelling approach is arguably effective, because it makes the audience feel as lost as the characters in the film would be, but it also creates a queasy dread for which the film never quite provides relief or catharsis. There's a purity to the film's point-of-view that makes its story's trajectory and eventual ending feel completely appropriate, but I expect it will take a few more re-watches down the road to come to terms with what it says about an everyman's ability to cope with the potential decimation of his world. This particular viewer is not completely won over by Miracle Mile, but I have such admiration and respect for what it attempts and mostly achieves, that I urge you to watch this movie and swish it around your mind for a bit.