This article is part of the Motherboard Guide to Cinema, a semi-regular column exploring foreign and obscure speculative films.
Spoilers to follow.
Over the last few months, the US has found itself seriously contemplating the possibility of nuclear war with North Korea for the first time in decades, following North Korean missile tests, the deployment of a US missile defense system in South Korea, and provocative rhetoric from both US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
The seeming plausibleness of the world's first nuclear conflict since World War II has given way to dozens of articles about how to survive a nuclear war, how we definitely weren't going to have a nuclear war and so on, creating an atmosphere of total confusion about what the hell's actually going on. It's this climate of confusion and incredulity leading up to the nuclear apocalypse that is perfectly captured in Miracle Mile, a cult film made almost 30 years ago which nevertheless manages to perfectly anticipate the United States' most recent nuclear standoff.
Written and directed by Steve de Jarnatt, Miracle Mile tells the story of two star-crossed lovers in the final hours before a nuclear apocalypse destroys Los Angeles (and presumably the rest of the United States). Anthony Edwards stars as Harry, an employee of a natural history museum near the La Brea Tar Pits, where he meets Julie, played by Mare Winningham. For Harry and Julie, it is love at first sight at the tar pits and they agree to rendezvous for a date later that evening. But when Harry oversleeps his alarm and shows up at a diner for their date three hours late, he finds that Julie is nowhere to be found.
Harry tries to call Julie on a payphone at the diner, but doesn't get through to her. When the payphone rings and Harry answers it expecting Julie, he instead finds himself talking to frantic man, who divulges the United States' plans to launch a nuclear attack within the hour—giving the US about an hour and ten minutes before retaliatory bombs are expected to fall on Los Angeles.
Harry returns to the diner and tries to convince the other patrons of what he's just heard. After initially dismissing him as a loon, they eventually come to believe him and make plans to meet up at the Los Angeles airport for evacuation. Even though he only met her a few hours earlier, Harry refuses to get on the plane without Julie and embarks on a rescue mission on his own. What follows is an hour and a half of Harry and Julie navigating Los Angeles as the city descends into chaos before [SPOILER ALERT]
…they are both consumed by a nuclear explosion. After de Jarnatt finished writing Miracle Mile in 1979, Warner Brothers showed immediate interest, but actual production on the film stalled out. Then, in 1983, it was selected by the prestigious American Film magazine as one of the ten best unmade screenplays.
Ultimately, Jarnatt would end up buying back the script for $25,000 because the studio was going to bring on other writers and mess with his original script. After de Jarnatt had purchased back and rewritten Miracle Mile, Warner Brothers offered de Jarnatt nearly half a million dollars for the script. The offer was nearly unheard of for a script at the time, but de Jarnatt would ultimately turn it down, fearing that the studio would force him to change the ending. As it turned out, Warner Brothers was eyeing the script for use in a movie rendition of the Twilight Zone.
"I think if I would've taken the money, the film would've never been made or it would've been turned into a bad version of the Twilight Zone," de Jarnatt told me when I spoke to him at home over Skype. "In their ending they wanted him to wake up at the end and it was all a dream. But that was the whole thing: I'm making this movie, and that's not how it's going to end. "
But after turning down the offer, he found other studios reluctant to take a risk on this downbeat, apocalyptic romance. Eventually, de Jarnatt would end up securing a $3.7 million production budget and made the film with the now defunct studio, Orion, and released in 1989.
"To me, Miracle Mile has a happy ending," said de Jarnatt. "If we're all going to die, but you've at least found love before then, I guess that's happy."
Although the Cold War was winding to a close when Miracle Mile was released (the Berlin wall would be torn down the following year), its grim look at the circumstances surrounding nuclear warfare is timeless. During the Cold War, the United States came to the brink of nuclear war on a number of occasions, many of these close calls due to the US mistaking things like the moon, a solar flare and power outages as evidence of a Soviet nuclear attack.
Had the United States gone forward with their nuclear attacks in any of these cases, history (if there was any history after the attack) would have remembered us as the aggressors who justified our attack by mistakenly casting ourselves as the victims. In this respect, Miracle Mile is uncannily accurate insofar as it makes America the country that incites nuclear war, rather than positioning our country as the defenders of peace.
According to de Jarnatt, this was another big point of contention when it came to finding someone to produce the film. One of the bigwigs at Orion, Arthur Krim, had been a negotiator during the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks between the US and the Soviets in 1979, and wanted to make Russia the one to hasten the end of the world in the film. But once again Jarnatt refused to budge and insisted that it had to be the United States if the film was going to be made.
"The whole conceit is we launched the missiles."
"Krim said 'Listen, we love the script, but the Russians have to start the war so figure that out," de Jarnatt told me. "So I said, 'Well, then it's a ten minute movie. We know the missiles are coming and we'll wait for them to get here and that's it.' The whole conceit is we launched the missiles."
Just three years after the release of Miracle Mile, the Soviet Union collapsed and, the threat of nuclear apocalypse seemed far more remote than it did even a few years earlier. But when I spoke to Richard Rhodes, a Pulitzer-winning historian of the nuclear arms race, about this sense of peace and security after the Cold War, he said it was short lived.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton brought the United States to the brink of nuclear war after the US military had drafted plans for a preemptive strike against North Korea. The plan was to bomb a small nuclear reactor in the country so that the country couldn't produce the materials it needed to make nuclear weapons. According to reports released years later, the strike would have likely resulted in upwards of 1 million deaths.
"That was the most important near miss beside the Cuban missile crisis," Rhodes told me over the phone. "It was almost the exact same situation as it is now, with the significant exception that North Korea is now a nuclear power."
The 1994 incident reached a crisis point and the United States came within one day of sending thousands of troops to the Korean peninsula along with fighter jets, and evacuating American citizens from South Korea. The fears were that this would be read as a preparation for attack by North Korea, which would preemptively invade South Korea as a result. As Clinton was preparing to make a decision regarding the matter, he received a call from Jimmy Carter, who had flown to North Korea to meet with Kim Il Sung as a private citizen. According to Carter, North Korea had agreed to stop its nuclear program if they would receive new reactors which weren't capable of producing weapons-grade materials.
Up until last week, the 1994 Korea incident was the closest we'd come to starting a nuclear war in over twenty years. But history tends to repeat itself and here we are again talking about the possibility of nuclear war with the hermit kingdom. In Miracle Mile, the cause for the United States' nuclear strike is never given, nor is the intended target. But it's easy to sympathize with the feelings of rage and hopelessness experienced by those left to die in Los Angeles, who will never know what they died for.
While all the nuclear sabre rattling was going on these past few weeks, it was difficult to make sense of what it was all about. North Korea has made a habit of flying in the face of international sanctions for decades, so why attack them now? Was North Korea they really going to attack South Korea or Japan, or was this otherwise unremarkable missile test merely used as an opportunity for Trump to play the role of strongman like he did with the Syrian missile strikes?
In the event of nuclear war, the odds are we'd never know. We'd be left with millions dead and entire countries reduced to radioactive hellscapes. As Miracle Mile goes to show, in nuclear war there can be nothing other than pyrrhic victories. Just like in the film, those on the receiving end of nuclear missiles would only have a few minutes to contemplate their fate, or like Harry, hope that their corpses are one day found and put into a museum as a warning.
While Miracle Mile may not be a masterpiece of the cinema, it does perfectly capture the utter of absurdity and horror of nuclear warfare. In the opening scene of the film, Harry is seen playing the trombone on a rooftop in Los Angeles and he comments how he "never really saw the big picture until today."
Although Harry is referring to falling in love with Julie, the audience understands the irony of his observation: Harry is also about to experience the end of the world, which is about as "big picture" as you can get. But this is the entire point of the film, brilliantly summed up in its first line. The important parts of existence are what we as individuals experience in hyperlocal contexts, daily minutiae like oversleeping an alarm clock or falling in love with a stranger. But too often, we can only see the importance in the "big picture" events like nuclear war.
Perhaps it is no surprise that someone as self-important as Trump felt a calling to be president, where he could traffic exclusively in Big Picture items like bombing other countries. But before he goes to war, with North Korea or any other state, he might do well to watch Miracle Mile, where the folly of prioritizing the Big Picture over the lives of individuals on the ground is laid bare.
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