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If you want to see how we’ll handle nuclear apocalypse, watch Miracle Mile

Screenshot: Miracle Mile. Graphic: Emi Tolibas.
Screenshot: Miracle Mile. Graphic: Emi Tolibas.
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As the Cold War wound to a close at the tail end of the 1980s, with relationships thawing between the Soviet Union and America to a complete détente in December 1989, perhaps no one was more conflicted about the world being released from the looming threat of nuclear war than Steve De Jarnatt. Since 1979, De Jarnatt had been working on his pet project—a movie about a man who accidentally learns of impending nuclear war—to the point of obsession, shrugging off nearly all other career opportunities in the interim while battling studios and producers to protect it. And after finally getting his film into U.S. theaters in May 1989, here the real world went and rendered it redundant. Like the rest of us, surely De Jarnatt was relieved that Armageddon had been temporarily averted. But he probably couldn’t help being a little bitter about the timing.

On the plus side, all of that time spent guarding his convictions paid off. Miracle Mile remains a distinctly singular vision, and it’s only because of De Jarnatt’s commitment to ensuring it remained the way he wrote it—jarring tonal shifts and gut-punch of an ending intact—that it’s still being discussed close to 30 years later, even outside of columns focused on nuclear war movies. There’s nothing else like it in that narrowly defined subgenre, and not much like it in cinema, period: It’s a strange mishmash of romantic comedy, disaster film, psychological thriller, and the kind of “into the night” movie that was so in vogue in the 1980s, albeit one where its staid character being transformed by romance and crazy adventure turns into a soon-to-be-fossilized corpse. Miracle Mile is uniquely weird, and one imagines that audiences who caught it in the theater (among the few who did, anyway) walked out feeling shaken by its ending, even in a world where the Doomsday Clock had safely clicked back.

Fair warning: It’s impossible to talk about Miracle Mile without discussing that ending, as it’s essential to the story De Jarnatt wanted to tell—and it’s the whole reason the film languished in production for as long as it did. In the 10 years between the time De Jarnatt’s script landed on the list of “Best Unproduced Screenplays In Hollywood” and the year he finally got it done, movies like 1983’s The Day After and Testament had already plumbed the physical and psychological horrors of nuclear war, but in those films, they were the whole point. Grafting them onto a story that was otherwise a quirky, meet-cute comedy proved to be a bridge too far for Warner Bros., who eagerly snapped up the script and flirted with attaching big names to it like Nicolas Cage or Kurt Russell, before repeatedly balking unless De Jarnatt agreed to change it into something more uplifting. You can’t make a nuclear apocalypse movie that makes people feel bad.

Impressively, De Jarnatt, whose sole directing credits at the time were the short Tarzana and an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, stood his ground. Meanwhile, as he recalled in a 2015 interview with Shock Till You Drop, he turned down the chance to helm films like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Police Academy, dedicating himself to getting Miracle Mile done—and getting it done correctly. Eventually he bought his script back for $25,000, refusing to sell back the revised draft because he wanted to protect the ending. The ending was what mattered.

When De Jarnatt did finally begin production—independently—on Miracle Mile (after a brief detour into directing the bizarro sex-bot comedy Cherry 2000), both Cage and Russell were long gone, but Top Gun had made a leading-ish man out of Anthony Edwards. It’s difficult to picture someone of Russell’s or Cage’s stock in the film’s lead role anyway: Harry isn’t a hero, nor is he a psychopath. He’s a nebbish with a quirky, decidedly ’80s movie career in a touring swing band. (“The king of the Glenn Miller impersonators,” he informs us.) Suffice it to say, it’s hard to imagine either Cage or Russell serenading L.A. with their jazz trombone. And Edwards, all soft features and half-swallowed enunciations, brings a natural ineffectiveness to Harry that’s key to the character’s insecurities. Kurt Russell wouldn’t have to convince anyone missiles were on the way; everyone would just strap themselves to Snake Plissken’s back and light out immediately for Tijuana.

Harry’s oddly anachronistic interests could be explained by the fact that De Jarnatt originally wrote it about a 45-year-old, “like Gene Hackman,” trying to reconcile with his ex. Instead, he changed it to a story of fresh young love: Harry’s charming, zoot-suited doofus finally meets the girl of his dreams, Julie (Mare Winningham), only to sleep through their date when a power outage kills his alarm. He races to the all-night diner where she works, futilely hoping she’ll still be there; instead he arrives just in time to have a fateful encounter with the ringing phone booth just outside. Picking up, he’s informed by a frantic man claiming to be a soldier stationed inside a North Dakota silo that missiles are on their way to the Soviet Union, with a return volley expected in just over an hour. The film’s lightly tripping romantic fantasy is over. Miracle Mile switches to a thriller unfolding in near real-time, captured by the now-ominously spinning clock above Harry’s head.

Harry initially thinks it’s all a joke; the motley assemblage of street sweepers, stewardesses, transvestites, and short order cooks inside also think he’s full of shit. Fortunately for him, the quintessentially ’80s, power suit-rocking businesswoman (Denise Crosby) who “used to date a guy from the Rand Corporation” stops speed-reading the CliffsNotes of Gravity’s Rainbow long enough to pull out her enormous brick-phone and call some of her ex’s high-level friends. After discovering her political contacts have all fled for South America—and after exchanging a few ominous code words—she confirms that apocalypse is indeed nigh.

While this is obviously ludicrous, it’s in these tense, initial moments, where the film abruptly jolts out of its lovey-dovey haze, that Miracle Mile best brings to life the underlying anxieties of nuclear war—the abstractness of a threat long since reduced to background noise, now suddenly, impossibly real. The Day After’s characters are bombarded with news bulletins about a minor geopolitical standoff that slowly escalates while they shrug and switch it off; in Miracle Mile, there’s nothing to ignore, no prelude, no inciting incident. Here nuclear war is just understood to be the inevitable climax of a danger that’s lived long enough to be completely forgotten, until it all suddenly comes roaring in at 5 a.m.

Understandably, even Harry repeatedly stops to question whether this is all a dream. De Jarnatt’s film itself certainly hints that it is. His camera glides through a narcotic blur of moon-glow blue, deep reds, and sparkling neon lights—centered on the glowing, Googie mecca of Hollywood’s beloved Johnie’s Diner—that’s only intensified by Tangerine Dream’s minimalist synth pulses. Meanwhile, everything proceeds according to a sort of dream logic. Harry and Julie’s courtship plays out quickly and with suspiciously few words; more time is spent discussing the history of evolution than what they even like about each other. When Crosby’s Landa rallies the other diners into a van headed for the airport, hoping to charter a plane to Antarctica, Harry is unthinkingly swept along, only to jump off the back of the speeding truck to go after Julie instead. Almost immediately, he hijacks a car at gunpoint and inadvertently kills a few people. All of this unfurls at such a manic, glibly humorous pace—like an apocalyptic After Hours—that there doesn’t seem to be real-life consequence to any of it.

The flashes of surrealism and humor keep that hope alive as well. As rumors of impending attack spread, L.A. devolves into a chaos that is, at once, terribly real and again, exaggeratedly comic. Trapped in a traffic snarl on Wilshire Boulevard, terrified citizens being shooting each other out of a complete lack of anything more constructive to do; Harry evades one of them by crawling past a corpse clutching a bloodied copy of Variety. By the time he’s stalking through an aerobics class, brandishing a revolver in search of a helicopter pilot, Miracle Mile has taken so many wild tonal detours and bizarre feints, it definitely seems to be building toward the reveal that Harry having some kind of MTV-fueled nightmare.

Screenshot: Miracle Mile
Screenshot: Miracle Mile

Miracle Mile’s wicked, defining joke—and the ending that De Jarnatt fought for across a decade—is that it’s all real, that there is nothing to be done about it, and that no one will be spared. Harry and Julie narrowly escape in the chopper, only to see warheads streaking across the sky. A sleazy yuppie played by Kurt Fuller gets in one last word of comic relief, laughing derisively as he’s hit by the blast, his liquefied eyeballs squirting through his hands. The EMP of the detonation renders the helicopter’s engines useless. “There’s nowhere to go,” the bloodied pilot murmurs as the chopper lists and tumbles into those same La Brea Tar Pits. And as Harry and Julie sink into the mire, exchanging more cheap flirtations about someday winding up in a museum, the film darkly, mercilessly fades to black.

“I was absolutely thinking ‘What can I do to scare the world to death about a nuclear war happening?’” De Jarnatt said in a 2015 interview. And while he’s acknowledged that Miracle Mile would have been much more effective had it debuted in 1980, well before we became inured to nuclear apocalypses both real and fictional—and although its humor, along with a truly remarkable panoply of the decade’s worst fashions, now gives the film a safely kitschy remove—the existential terror of those final minutes haven’t dimmed. It’s still a shock to see these two lovable rom-com clichés get denied their last-minute reprieve; the portrait of a world so completely caught up in its own personal stories that it will never see the bombs coming still resonates. (“Forget everything you just heard and go back to sleep,” a soldier tells Harry in one of the film’s more on-the-nose moments.) Miracle Mile isn’t a particularly weighty movie, or even trying to be one. That’s what makes it effective. Hey, our lives aren’t particularly weighty either. We’re gonna be up our own asses when we get that 5 a.m. alert, too.