Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Miracle Mile

Miracle Mile (1988)

Starring Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham

Directed by Steve De Jarnatt

It seems so long ago now that it's easy to forget that the Cold War lasted for over 30 years, seeing the USA and the USSR insanely pointing their respective nuclear arsenals at each other and poisoning the public mind with worry for years on end.  The world lived with the constant threat of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction - as if that would be some consolation) in the event of the balloon going up and both sides launching their missiles.  The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest it came actually to happening, but the fear and paranoia continued in many people, looming large in the public consciousness.  This was often  reflected in the films, plays, tv programs and artworks of the period.  Just look, for instance, at "Fail Safe", "Dr. Strangelove", "On the Beach", the British-made tv movie "Threads", or even "War Games".  "Miracle Mile" is another, slightly lower profile, to join that list.

Named for the famous street in LA,the film has dated severely, both in terms of its subject matter, and stylistically.  It's oddly reminiscent of that mid-80s "Miami Vice" style - all swaying palm trees, filtered sunsets, neon signs and synth music.  But it remains eerily disturbing and truly memorable.  Our story sees musician Harry Warshello meet and fall for Diner waitress Julie Peters whilst visiting the Natural History Museum by La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.  The romance aspect shown in the first 20 minutes of the film is fairly strained, and definitely reflects the most dated part.  But 20 minutes in, the real film begins.  One night before Harry goes on tour the couple are due to meet by Julie's diner after her shift for a late, late night date, but due to a power failure at Harry's hotel his alarm doesn't go off and he oversleeps till 4am.  Racing down to the diner he finds Julie long gone, obviously, and whilst trying to call her home from a phonebox outside the diner, to apologize, the phone rings, and he answers.  The caller, it transpires, is a soldier at a US Army missile silo in North Dakota, trying to reach his Father in Orange County but has mis-dialled the area code.  He's calling to warn his dad that a nuclear strike against the USSR has been triggered inadvertantly, and the retaliation will be hitting American cities in 70 minutes. "We're locked into it... It's happening... it's really happening" yells the caller.  A dumbstruck Harry says "This is a joke, right?", unable to digest the awful news.  After an audible burst of gunfire, another voice comes onto the line and chillingly says: "Forget everything you just heard. Go back to sleep."  Harry starts to believe that the worst could be coming true...

What follows plays out in real-time (eat your heart out Jack Bauer!) as Harry and the fellow patrons of the diner, after initially squabbling and not believing, trying to verify the validity of the call, the most awful of news, desperately struggle to make it to a helipad on one of the city's skyscrapers, and get to the airport to escape the city before the strike hits.  Harry has to pick up Julie and her parents, who are obviously asleep.  It's a frantic, incident-laden race against time, punctuated by a series of encounters with a wide range of characters, and things are getting worse by the minute.  There is a car robbery from an innocent bystander, to whom Harry has to tell a made-up story for fear of not being believed about the terrible apocalypse to come, to an accidental murder of a Police officer at a petrol station, to the subsequent killing by police of the perpetrator of that act.  Then when word starts to spread, all hell breaks loose and the streets become utterly chaotic, making things that much harder for our hero to reach his goal.  Carnage certainly reigns on the streets of L.A. and these scenes are noteworthy for their scope.  It's worth noting that the film's score, by German Electronica band Tangerine Dream is completely haunting and effective, pumping when necessary, and really helps to build up tension in these scenes, whilst lending an ethereal air to the proceedings with their alternatingly tense pounding, and beautiful ambience.

The film's main strength is in its vivid portrayal of the weakness and desperation of knowing this could be the final few minutes of ones life, and asking if there is anything to be known for it to be avoided, and if there is any greater purpose in having been given life in the first place - the scene at the museum foreshadows this - for it to be evaluated.  There is a tender love story between Harry and Julie, which, while eliciting little sympathy initially during those awful 80s neon moments, becomes wholly believable and careworthy towards the end of the picture when carnage breaks out.  But the main selling point is the real-time countdown to an end, semi-credulously believed by those on screen; some say "get me out of here, I have to survive", some say "f*** it, let's have a drink".  Direction, by necessity, is taut, gripping, and interesting.  It reminded me a lot of 
"The Terminator" due to the apocalyptic tone, and the late night L.A vibe.  As Harry lurches from one nightmare scenario to another, we are never made to forget about THE nightmare scenario underlying the whole picture.  Thus, De Jarnatt constantly reminds us of where our sympathies should be lying, as human people.  For that reason mainly, I remember this film.  Once seen, the scenes of L.A. in uproar and crisis as everyone tries to escape, will seldom be forgotten. 

Having recently re-watched the film for the first time in, say, fifteen years, I can say only a few things pertinent.  One, for sure, it is dated very much to its time of the late 1980s. Two, it is a spectacular depiction of the carnage we would see at the end of time - of the sort popularized and leered over by "Independence Day" and subsequent ludicrous alien / terrorist films of late.  Here, however, the camera is on the ground as it unfurls, and it is all the more affecting for being so. Three, though, it is a fantastic human drama, right through to a climax which is both surprising yet strangely fitting, not to mention deeply moving.  Edwards - of "Top Gun" and "E.R" fame - gives an unquestionably fantastic performance as the increasingly frantic Harry, singularly carrying the film, and he is in most scenes.  Winningham - most recently seen alongside Judi Dench in "Philomena" - a little less so, altough still heartbre!aking and effective - it's a bit hard to see what Harry sees in her, as much as we sympathise with their nightmarish situation.  That she spends a great portion of the movie passed out on valium is a bit of a problem... but even then, it allows Harry to show his care and humanity, as he tries to keep the truth from her as they make their way out of the city.  The film is not without flaws.   As mentioned it is apallingly dated and the perilous scenarios just hurl themselves thick and fast... but the awful situation depicted is so damned memorable.  If you've ever seen this film, or if you see it in future, you won't ever forget it.

So, "Miracle Mile" is a deeply flawed but utterly compelling and a noterworthy 1980s triumph.  It gives a vivid nightmare version of what people 25 years ago thought could really happen.  Heaven forbid! Thank God I am here to write this today.  It's kind of obscure - known but not that widely distributed, so you may not come across it easily, but if you do, have a look.  It's definitely worth a watch.

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