“Every great film should seem new every time you see it.”
‘Miracle Mile’ opens with a wacky, romantic montage depicting a man’s comical exploits as he playfully pursues a woman in a museum. We hear his voice as he does so:
“Love can sure spin your head around,” Harry Washello (played by Anthony Edwards) muses in the film’s opening moments, “God, where do you begin?”
Love, then, in my estimation, is a lot like the movies. The art form has the unique ability to take you someplace visceral. To challenge what you think you know, what you think you feel and to ultimately- what was the phrase? Spin your head around.
The opening does a lot to establish expectations. Initially, this sequence made me question what I was watching. What little I knew about the film did not connect to the light hearted romantic comedy playing out on screen. Expectation can be an enemy to art: a predetermined opinion that often binds without relevance or fairness. On the other hand, as evidenced in MIRACLE MILE, expectation can be the seed of subversion. The promise of a journey that you can’t possibly predict.
I’ve always been partial to genre heavy cinema. Movies that push the boundaries of reality. Films that force characters into the types of scenarios that will draw forth truth and honesty. For, when else can we be true to who we really are, but when faced with decimation? The unknown? Our own mortality?
But that wasn’t what I was watching. No, ‘Miracle Mile’ was a somewhat quirky flick about Harry and Julie’s (actress Mare Winningham) meet-cute and the misadventures which would undoubtedly proceed it.
Clearly this was a film well aware of the romantic-comedy genre setting in which it began, one that by 1989 was very well worn. Audiences too were savvy and, given the proper context, knew exactly what to expect. After all, movies like “Into the Night” and “After Hours” had already explored what happens late at night, just who it is that comes out to play and the dangers (and rewards) that go along with it. This was a film running with the baton of the those that had come before it.
So it is that when a series of events leads to Harry oversleeping his alarm and missing his midnight rendezvous with Julie, we know exactly what we’re going to get… right?
As I watched Harry discover just how eclectic the crowd at Johnie’s Coffee Shop is at 4AM, my expectations began to evolve beyond the simple, quirky romantic-comedy I initially signed up for. Still, given the unfortunate nature in which Harry had broken his date with Julie, his wrong had to be made right. That was the narrative thrust. That was what mattered.
Then, a phone call. Random. Unintentional. Wrong place at the wrong time. And it changes everything.
Chip: I told you what would happen if it ever came down. Well, it is! We don’t know why! Why would we, huh? It’s for real, dad! It’s no drill! We shoot our wad in fifty minutes. They’re going to pick us up in five or ten. And you could get it back in an hour and ten. Maybe seventy-five minutes!
Harry Washello: What exactly are you talking about?
Chip: I’m talking about nuclear fucking war.
There’s nothing quite like the odd tug in your gut when a film changes gears. At first, it feels wrong. Misplaced. In a lesser picture, maybe it would’ve been. Instead, Harry treats the event with a seriousness that’s grounded in very real fear. As he hurries into the restaurant to digest and subsequently inform the others of what he has learned, I too was digesting. Nervous. Unsure of how to proceed.
My expectations were shifting. They had to. This wasn’t the same movie as before. I, like Harry, would have to adapt, become something different in order to survive the experience. The night was supposed to have been fun. And after the call… nothing would ever be the same.
When faced with the angry, emotional reactions of those in the diner and their desire to disbelieve, Harry responds simply: “Listen I’m just a guy who picked up the phone.” He’s the protagonist that’s supposed to spend the runtime of the story being inflicted by the events around him. His path, based on the sub-genre he had so recently occupied, would only in the end bring him to the conclusion that he writes his own narrative and is not merely the victim of its occurrence.
‘Miracle Mile’ discards that notion. He must learn this lesson early. He must choose his path fearlessly. He must not hesitate, if he hopes to survive.
The transition from love and loneliness to life and death occurs so quickly and so deftly that by the time Harry finds himself running the gamut of the city’s underbelly, you’re no longer sure of what to expect. A chance encounter with a yet another quirky individual, a man named Wilson played by Mykelti Williamson, that steals stereos leads to the horrific deaths of two police officers. Later, an attempt to save Wilson leads to not only his death, but that of his beloved sister, Charlotta. Her poignant dying words remind of the idea of love and the drive that it can provide, even when hope is all but a memory: Is this your blood… or mine?
Yes, the death toll mounts and still Harry’s priority is the same as it was at the beginning.
After all, as Wilson did Charlotta, Harry loves Julie.
He collects her, traversing the city in an effort to get to a helicopter promised by an affluent patron from Johnie’s Diner. Word of imminent destruction seems to grow throughout the city like wildfire. Is it all because of the phone call? Because of Harry? Was it all a prank?
Harry has no time for guilt. No time to fear such things. He is the antithesis of the beleaguered, neurotic protagonist of the quirky, romantic comedy. He has evolved. His situation has evolved. And, yet, the world around him is devolving. Slipping into the kind chaos that is so immediate and crude that one finds the absurdity of it all just bizarre enough to believe. Deep down, I think, we all know how imminent annihilation would proceed.
Julie Peters: People are gonna help each other, aren’t they? Rebuilding things?
Harry Washello: I think it’s the insect’s turn.
Schizophrenic drama turns to heightened mystery thriller which in turn becomes epic disaster all in the span of 50 minutes. The events feel as though they’re playing out in real time because for all intents and purposes they are. Harry is given the knowledge that they have 75 minutes. The viewer too. We, like Harry, enter in to this knowing exactly how it’s all going to end.
And, still, we fight. The viewer by caring and engaging mentally in Harry’s plight. Harry in his fight for survival. His fight for love.
As the film treads toward its conclusion, Harry and Julie find the helicopter, locate a pilot and make it into the air. They’re together.
The blast hits and the helicopter falls. Earlier in the film, near the beginning, Harry and Julie found themselves flirting whilst overlooking a tar pit. A statue of a struggling wooly mammoth sat in the middle, fear and damnation etched in terror on its unmoving face. As the helicopter sinks and our two protagonists hold one another, the love they share is never more palpable.
Harry Washello: They’ll find us here someday.
Julie Peters: They’ll put us in a museum.
The aim of the wacky, romantic comedy seems to be an effort to showcase love. Certainly in a humorous way, perhaps even a subversive one. But, ultimately, the genre wishes to leave its viewers with the warmth and knowledge that love is real, it exists and it can overcome all odds.
‘Miracle Mile’ does the exact same thing, with the same components, only it adds in the ingredients that comprise every other genre. It is not content to tell one story, but to journey through all of them, painting a picture of what a human being is capable of in the stead of love. It is simultaneously meeting the expectations of its opening premise while undermining what it was the viewer had expected to see.
Harry Washello opens the film by saying, “I never really saw the big picture before… not until today.” ‘Miracle Mile’ is a movie which posits that most of us never really see the ‘big picture’ Harry’s talking about. Not until it’s too late. Why do we tell these stories? Why do we flock to these movies? These big, idealized romances? Why is it that we want to see the neurotic somewhat handsome lead win over the person to which he knows his heart belongs?
Maybe it’s because we want a distilled glimpse of euphoric love. A feeling, captured and contained on celluloid, that mirrors what we all value, desire and treasure more than anything else in the world.
‘Miracle Mile’ accomplishes this lofty goal- just not in the way you’d expect.
Harry Washello: Maybe we can get a direct hit. It'll metamorphosize us. Superman, he can take a lump of coal and he'd squeeze it, and it would make a diamond.
Julie Peters: Diamonds - you and me, Harry.
Harry Washello: You and me. Diamonds.
Julie Peters: Diamonds - you and me, Harry.
Harry Washello: You and me. Diamonds.