Someone one going into Miracle Mile blindly might at first think it’s a simple quirky boy-meets-girl love story movie. There is absolutely nothing within the first 20 minutes that foreshadows the thrilling majority of the movie. This makes the movie more disturbing how normal everyday events can turn into chaos so fast and unexpected.
For much of the 1980s, the script by Steve De Jarnett (who had only co-written The Adventures of Doug and Bob McKenzie: Strange Brew) spent years being shopped around Hollywood. At one time, it was supposed to be the working script for the Twilight Zone movie before De Jarnatt insisted on directing the movie. He was eventually able to buy back the rights and rewrite the script but only able to make it through the independent film production company Hemdale.
The movie is set mostly in real time starting out with a young trombonist in a traveling band named Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards) who meets a young woman, Julie Peters (Mare Winningham) at the La Brea Tar Pits one afternoon. They immediately have an interest in each other and Julie takes her grandfather, Ivan (John Agar) to watch him perform in the nearby Miracle Mile park.
But Julie has to go work at the nearby Fat Boy diner until midnight and Harry goes back to his motel to take a nap. They agree to meet later after she gets off work. But Harry makes a foolish mistakes when he flicks a lit cigarette on the ground before going into his room. A bird snatches it up and puts it in the nest, which just happens to be made on a set of power cables on top of the motel roof. The nest catches fire and all power is cut to the motel.
When midnight comes, Julie is left stranded. She calls Harry’s motel room but since the power is off, so is the phones. When power is restore after 4 a.m., Harry wakes up thinking it’s earlier but when he realizes the time, he rushes to to the diner. It’s here where the movie’s tone begins to change and I have a theory that Harry is still dreaming and having a nightmare.
A waitress, Susie (O-Lan Jones) immediately recognizes Harry and calls him by name even though she hasn’t met him. The diner is full of a bunch of colorful characters, including two workers who use street sweepers, a cross-dresser, a woman dressed up as a stewardess but who isn’t one, a middle-aged well-dress man who looks like he’s had a rough night and a young businesswoman, Landa (Denis Crosby). Landa also had a Cliff Notes book on Gravity’s Rainbow, which is about the production of V-2 rockets in Nazi Germany.
Harry goes to the payphone outside the restaurant to try to call Julie but gets no answer. When he turns to go back in the diner, it rings and he answers only to hear a frantic young man, Chip (Raphael Sbarge), on the other end calling from a missile silo in North Dakota. Chip thinks he’s calling his family but used the wrong area code and before Harry can stop him, he’s talking about how the nuclear missiles have been launched in 50 minutes toward the Soviet Union and they will counter and their missiles should hit America and southern California in just over an hour.
Then, Harry hears some gunshots on the other end as another, more strict voice tells Harry to forget everything he’s heard and go back to bed. But how does the other person know it’s still early? In North Dakota, it would be after 6 a.m. when most people are up and about for the day.
Shaken, Harry goes back in the diner where his behavior upsets the staff and as he tries to convince them of what’s happening. Landa takes out her mobile phone and makes a phone call to some people she knows in Washington D.C. and says that there are many planes being headed toward the Southern Hemisphere. And she is able to charter a plane out of Los Angeles.
Frantically, many of the diner patrons hop into a van being driven by the cook. But Harry’s car is stolen by one of the staff and he hops in telling them to go pick up Julie before they go to the airport. Why doesn’t Harry call anyone else? Does he have family? When he realizes the diner cook isn’t heading toward Julie’s apartment, he jumps out on the highway where is able to hitch a ride with a petty criminal, Wilson (Mykelyti Williamson) who takes him to Julie’s apartment.
Unfortunately, before they can get there, some things happen that turn a bad situation to worse. Harry knows that a helicopter full of supplies have been arranged to land on the top of the Mutual Benefit Life Building not far from Julie’s apartment which she shares with her grandmother. But there is no pilot for the helicopter. How does a helicopter get on the top of a skyscraper? Landra arranged it but how fast can you arrange this? And would her co-worker (Kurt Fuller) be ready so quick? Remember this is about 4:30 in the morning.
Everything seems to flow with too much of a convenience yet there seem to be obstacles that are a little too farfetched such as a set of grisly deaths at a gas station and Wilson and a stolen patrol vehicle. Harry is also able to find a pilot (Brian Thompson) at a nearby gym. When the movie goes to a full chaos when the sun rises, it seems to have happened awfully quick. Also, does the sun really rise so early around 5 a.m. in Los Angeles no matter time of year it is.
Not to give much away, the movie ends at the La Brea Tar Pits where Harry and Julie first met less than 24 hours. Everything about this movie and how it moves from a quiet early morning in a L.A. neighborhood to a full-scale riot makes me think Harry is having a nightmare.
After his performance, he walks with Julie and Ivan but they come across her grandmother, Lucy (Lou Hancock). But there’s some hostility. Ivan and Lucy are separated but still live in the same apartment complex and haven’t spoken in years and avoid each other. Yet, when Harry goes to get Julie, not only is Lucy very cordial to a man she met briefly for a few minutes, but she agrees with him to take a still sleeping Lucy out of the building. And down in the garage, they just happen to meet Ivan. And Ivan and Lucy rekindle their relationship.
So, is Harry dreaming? Could be. Da Jarnatt films the movie almost from the start with a dreamy like feel. Or could it all be happening for real? L.A. is a big area. So, it’s possible for Landra and her co-worker to have worked at the skyscraper and they were early risers to work. As for the pilot, that could be plausible, but what happens with his friend who he takes with him from the gym that is never seen again nor explained.
Miracle Mile was made and released in an era when the nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union was still a threat. Yet, with Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the threat of World War III is always on everyone’s mind. (A side note to mention here. This movie was shown at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 11, 1988. Take about a crazy coincidence.)
Seeing how a pleasant, quiet neighborhood can erupt into blood chaos at the end shows you that we are ourselves are capable of a destruction more than a foreign enemy can do. Sometimes, knowing what is about to happen is worse than when it happens.
What do you think? Please comment.