The 1980’s were the peak of the nuclear war disaster movie. It conveyed the very real fear that the general public had at the time of being wiped off the Earth. Miracle Mile was one of the last of this collection and is considered a bit of an indie art house movie. Whilst criminally overlooked on release, its recent release on Blu Ray, the almost real time thriller should now get some of the dues it richly deserves.
The disasters faced
Nukes, guns, the spread of information, traffic jams, the rise of panic and fear, Valium, remembering just how huge the first mobile phones were and a pyromaniac pigeon.
Harry Washello is a man who has been letting life drift by. Happy enough in his work and life, he didn’t realise he was missing something until he spots Julie on a trip to The La Brea Tar Pits. The two get talking and start the blossoming of new love. Julie works at a diner and they agree to meet after her shift for a night out on the town. Harry goes home for a nap and a change but when a birdy takes his flicked lit cigarette to its nest and causes the power line to blow out, Harry sleeps through until nearly 4am. Julie, thinking she’s been stood up, goes home to take a Valium and knock herself out.
Harry goes to the diner anyway to get Julie’s contact details from her staff mates to try and make it up to her. He tries to call Julie on the payphone outside but gets no reply. As he walks away the phone rings back and he picks it up – its not Julie though. Instead he gets someone named Chip who thinks he is ringing his dad to tell him we’ve just gone into nuclear war. He reals off lots of codes and jargon before being cut off with what sounds like gunshots.
Harry, naturally shaken up stumbles back into the diner to try and reconcile his thoughts. Inside the diner are a 4am motley crew. Aside from the waitress and Fred the Cook, we have a drunk, a transvestite, a couple of street cleaners, a stewardess, a sleepy old lady and high flying business lady Landa. When they all hear of the news they react in different ways of disbelief, much as Harry does himself. Landa has connections though and all of her powerful contacts have just boarded planes all heading south of the equator.
This spooks everyone in diner enough to dive to get Landa to organise a private plane out of there, bringing as many kitchen supplies as they can carry. Harry asks them to stop by and grab Julie but Fred refuses. Landa has some yuppie friends who are getting a helicopter out of Miracle Mile and that could be a way out. Harry then leaps from the food truck, stealing Frank’s gun in the process and holds up a car so that he can get back to Julie and her parents Lucy & Ivan. The car is being driven by Wilson, whose just stolen loads of radios and whilst he reluctantly agrees to help, he also wants to pick up his sister Charlotta at the same time.
The problem is – time is ticking and as word spreads and more things start escalating nothing has even happened yet. Was Chip’s message real? If it is can Harry get to Julie and get out in time? Will the helicopter even be there for them if they do and can anyone even fly it? Then there is the flip side – if nothing is going to happen – what has Harry just started?
Why is it worth watching?
Miracle Mile is a film I’d pair with Last Night in terms of tone, pace and human touch. Both have different people reacting to the end of their lives in a variety of ways. Some with acceptance, some with black humour and others who won’t go down fighting. It’s always fascinating to see how humanity and society falls apart and Miracle Mile deals with that well as we drift in and out of other people’s’ own escapes and thoughts. It helps that you are rooting for general all round nice couple Harry and Julie too, as well as some of their oddball friends. My thoughts are if you like Miracle Mile, you’ll like Last Night and vice versa.
It isn’t often I talk about directors on this site but I wanted to make a mention of Steve de Jarnatt. He only made two films, this being his second, but he had a real eye for effective long shots and location shooting. Miracle Mile takes place mainly around a square block of roads and buildings on the real Miracle Mile and as its filmed at early morning and into dawn, the camera uses plenty of sweeping shots as our characters move around the location. The cuts are few and far between. Instead cameras pan around a person, run alongside them or zoom out to a static shot showing the characters running around the place. It is all of this that helps sell the real time emergency and real world details. The location is as much a character as the people and Steve de Jarnatt knew it. I do like the fact he has a cameo as a guy face planting a sewer grating after being shot. You’ll know it when you see it!
It is also worth playing spot the cameo with this film too. There are so many familiar faces in Miracle Mile that show up for just a few scenes. Everyone interweaves and impacts on Harry & Julie’s escape plans but aside from Wilson, they don’t hang around for too long. They still act their socks off though. The early scenes in the diner feel more like a tight single location play but that feeling soon fades as we move outside. That being said, each character nails their role in a very 80’s fashion. By that, I don’t mean the acting is dated – I mean the way how we communicate now has changed. This story all hinged on the fact no one can verify a random call and no one has immediate contact with other countries, location trackers and so on. We aren’t connected like an umbilical cord to the internet yet and that allows confusing and isolation to become very real, very quickly. I wonder how this film would play out in today’s world?
There is one other key element that makes this film feel unique. It is the soundtrack. Synth legends Tangerine Dream composed the score for the film and nothing could feel more 1980’s, more cold war, more dystopian if it tried. The synths are thick, creamy and oppressive. They underscore so much of the movie without it ever feeling like it is taking over. Without the score, things wouldn’t feel quite so taut.
Whilst on a low-budget, the main finale carnage set piece is still really well put together with cars crashing, crowds rioting and general chaos ensuing. Some big explosions and mass crowd sequences sell the fact that mass panic has begun. The key to this is the sparse but very effective use of wide shots. Instead, we stay close and travel with Harry and Julie when it all kicks off. There’s some other really good set pieces too and the fact you can tell that it’s all taking place on an actual real town location gives everything an extra layer of realism.
Harry and Julie are adorable as the main duo and they run the gambit of emotions as they feel pulled to looking after each other and surviving. Julie’s parents fell out 15 years ago but still love each other. Their lesson is a tale of letting bygones be bygones as they provide the only mild levity in a situation that’s heading south quickly. Wilson is a tale of a kid on the wrong side of the tracks although he can sell a stereo like a boss. The yuppie collective (as I call them) are all so maximum business, its a fantastic send up of that personality type. Landa is busy saying things like ‘I need maximum efficiency!’ whilst the rooftop yuppies think wine would be an essential item. I love how the film boils down personality types into silly but completely relatable snippets of dialogue.
And they said they’d never talk again until the day they die!Julie speaking about her parents before she knows that the nukes are coming
Three memorable moments
- The entire traffic jam / car crash sequence for being so symbolic of the panic.
- Wilson and Charlotta on the elevator for being truly traumatic.
- Seeing The Le Brea Tar Pit elephants start to sink and the symbolism that brings.
The obligatory weird moment
On first watching I used to think the parents were the odd part out but over time I’ve come to understand their choices. Maybe age makes you less… aggressive. Now, my main confusion comes from the fact the helicopter keeps appearing and disappearing during the story. I’m assuming its going to and from LAX but it is never explicitly told to the viewer. In the original script, more was going to take place here but it was cut.
The drinking game
Spot all those cameos… or simply… wowzer, technology has really changed! That mobile phone of Landa’s is a delight every time I see it.
A perfect brother to Last Night in the “End of the World” last hours style of movie. It’s became a bit of a cult movie over time and I can completely see why. It holds up really well, its story is every bit as relevant today and it will leave you gut punched by the time your done. I am so glad that this piece of art stuck to its guns and delivered the story its writer and director wanted.
Rating: 4 / 5 – Excellent
If you liked Miracle Mile then you may like…
- Last Night – These two go as a pair for me. Both beautifully told and expertly crafted.
- Threads – If you are looking for the grimmest nuclear war 80’s movie – it is this.
- Its A Disaster! – Dark comedy about 4 couples stuck together at brunch for the end of the world.
This review was updated on 21/06/20 to meet the new review format for ILDM.