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Love in the Time of Nuclear War

The year was 1988, a high point in American history for both nuclear fear and modern romance at the movies. In ‘Miracle Mile,’ romance collides with the apocalypse, setting the middle-class idealism of the Reagan era against its sense of chaos for a uniquely hopeful kind of disaster film.

(Columbia Pictures/Ringer illustration)
(Columbia Pictures/Ringer illustration)

The essence of the current cultural discourse is that everything we watch is at least latently political. And we, the people, are hungry for political art. This monthly column, The Politics of American Movies, will explore everything from racially progressive Westerns and anti-fascist comedies to documentaries about the working class and popcorn flicks with subversive bite.

Sometimes you fall in love and, a day later, the world ends. That’s just how it is. It’s how things play out for Harry and Julie, who randomly meet at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum and fall for each other on the eve of a surprise nuclear attack. In Miracle Mile, Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards), a jazz trombonist in a touring big band, is in town for only one more night. Julie Peters (Mare Winningham), a waitress, has a shift that lasts until just after midnight. So they make a plan: Harry will take a nap, Julie will go to work, and after that, they’ll go on an actual date, dancing the night away.

That’s the plan, at least. It of course doesn’t pan out that way. Miracle Mile is a movie about chance. It’s by chance that Harry and Julie cross paths; that’s the definition of a meet-cute. It’s also by chance that Harry oversleeps — the stray cigarette he flings from his hotel balcony makes its way to a bird’s nest and unwittingly causes a fire that kills the hotel’s electricity — misses his date, and risks losing the woman of his dreams forever. And it’s by chance that Harry, standing by a pay phone outside of Julie’s restaurant after failing to get in touch with her, answers a call that changes the course of his life forever, or at least what little life he has left. It’s a call from inside a missile silo: A nuclear payload has been released, and the world has 50 minutes until it hits. That call was an accident too, by the way: The guy on the other line, Chip, dialed the wrong number. He’d intended to call his father; instead, he called a pay phone. Harry, lucky in love, just happens to be unlucky enough to answer it.

What happens from there is an unruly mix of the lovely and the insane. Harry, Julie, and the rest of Los Angeles, which hears about the nuke through predawn word of mouth, will spend the rest of the movie waiting for that bomb to hit, unsure if it actually will. It’s a hallmark of movies about nuclear apocalypse that we count down to the inevitable mushroom cloud. What’s different about Miracle Mile is that it goes out of its way to begin on a hopeful note. "Love can sure spin your head around," says Harry in a voice-over. "I mean for me, to find a girl my age who knows who Dicky Wells and Vernon Brown were — there has to be a cosmic plan of some sort." The movie isn’t only about an impending nuclear holocaust; it’s about a specific moment — both in real life and at the movies — that was overwhelmed with hopeful fantasies about the future.

Miracle Mile, which was written and directed by Steve De Jarnatt, was released in 1988, during one of several high points in American history for widespread nuclear fear — and also for art about it. It was also a high point for modern romance at the movies. John Hughes alone had revitalized romance at the box office with the likes of Sixteen Candles (1984) and Pretty in Pink (1986), films as much about the vicissitudes of nascent love as they are about a distinctly middle-class way of life, one that feels specific to the era. This was, after all, the moment of Ronald Reagan. You can’t imagine it without the aspirational fantasies of the burgeoning middle class. Nor can you imagine it without fear of imminent nuclear disaster. Hence: Miracle Mile.

The movie becomes a convoluted scramble to make it to a heliport, with the intention to make it to safety — somehow — and live happily ever after as a couple. You’d think these genres have nothing to do with each other — that they’d be completely at odds. In the face of love and life (romance), there’s death (nukes). In the face of cosmic order (love at first sight), there’s disorder (apocalypse). The movie was in fact described, by reviewers at the time, as having a giant lurch in tone once Harry gets the call. Suddenly, critics said, it switches from being one kind of movie to being another. But rarely has a movie so effectively set the middle-class idealism of the Reagan era against its sense of chaos. These strands aren’t at odds: They’re a part of the same story. During both times of great romance and of nuclear war, human fate is left to chance.

By the ’80s we had it all figured out: if not how to survive nuclear apocalypse, at the very least how, as citizens, to prepare for one — and represent it in movies. American movies about nukes arrived in three phases, each reflective of its time. The main pivot points: 1949 (Soviets drop their first bomb), the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and 1980 (the election of Ronald Reagan).

Over time, with repeated iterations, came a set of dependable genre conventions. One was a focus on the political and military maneuvering behind the launch of the bomb and/or its prevention: Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, both released in 1964. Another was an emphasis on the disruption of civic life: schools, families, and other pinnacles of community — "America" incarnate. There is perhaps no more resonant example of this than The Day After, the 1983 TV movie seen by more than 100 million people, in which an archetypal Kansas farm town reckons with the prospect, and then the aftermath, of a nuclear apocalypse. Then there is, of course, the trope of the countdown, found in many of these movies, to say nothing of the mushroom cloud itself. And there are the many films that imagine the aftermath, be it through "last man on earth" narratives or fantasies of a postapocalyptic wasteland in which all civility and sense of law have been lost.

You can see where Miracle Mile fits snuggly into the greater tradition: For all the ways the movie seems to depart from genre conventions, it’s tellingly beholden to them. It’s your basic countdown narrative, for one: The clock starts when Harry gets the call. And per the usually satisfying narrative climax of most nuclear movies, there is indeed a chance to see what happens in the wake of the bomb. Despite what sometimes feels like a chaotic, anarchic approach, with characters falling in and out of the story and the feeling that the city of Los Angeles is falling apart, the movie nevertheless conforms to conventions: In its randomness, it still captures the civil fabric of the city. Miracle Mile advances a random collection of individuals all colliding against each other, but together, they seem to sum up the city. The movie is a microcosm. At Julie’s coffee shop, Harry meets seemingly every kind of person: sexist grease monkeys; a woman dressed like a flight attendant (the outfit is her sister’s); a nondescript businessman; a drag queen; a mysterious businesswoman with a fancy briefcase, a clunky mobile phone, and the CliffsNotes for Gravity’s Rainbow, which she reads like it’s a manual. Later, he’ll cross paths with, and actively depend on, a gay meathead helicopter pilot and a car-stereo thief who accidentally sets a pair of cops on fire.

I wouldn’t say that films about nuclear disaster are inherently political. But there’s something to the insistence of The Day After and similar movies from the era, like Testament (1983), on making their characters and settings feel broadly representative, particularly when focusing on communities of regular people, rather than on nuclear decision-makers working behind closed doors. These movies approach politics by seeming to avoid it entirely: They’re not about people in power, but about the constituents whose lives that power affects.

The choice to tack a nuclear survival story onto a romance in the John Hughes era, meanwhile, is accidentally political, made so by the place Hughesian romance has in the imagination. The Reagan era was, for everyone but the poor, a time of looking to a more prosperous future. Hence Miracle Mile’s opening, with Harry meeting Julie and immediately fantasizing about a more professionally and romantically stable future. He meets her once, spends the afternoon with her, and by that night, he’s already dreaming up life changes, like quitting his big-band gig to take up teaching, maybe get married, maybe settle down for life.

Hughes, whose movies set the tone for this kind of pie-in-the-sky romance, was conservative — as is by now well-established. The idealism of the Hughesian romance was very much a product of the era. As Ben Stein, whose acting career was launched by Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, said last year, "The end of the ’70s were really bad economic times, and after the dark times of Watergate, I think Ferris was to some extent reacting to the fact that things were better. What was his mother’s occupation? Luxury real estate broker. Those were happier days, a much more optimistic age — even though we were running large deficits. Ferris Bueller’s optimism was very representative of the era, and it was very representative of who John Hughes was."

Nuclear war would tend to curtail that fantasy — which is the central irony of the Reagan era. A Hughesian romance premised on future stability might still seem possible during a political moment seemingly bent on bringing the world to the verge of destruction. You’d think a movie on that subject would automatically make sense, but De Jarnatt’s film almost didn’t get made because studios wanted a happier ending — an ending that suited the romance, not the war. "But that was a script that everybody wanted to make," Anthony Edwards told The A.V. Club, "but they wanted him to change the ending. It was this great adventure, but they wanted it to have a happy ending." That’s the forced optimism of the era creeping in. Thankfully, De Jarnatt resisted it.

All the forces of romantic idealism can’t save you from nuclear destruction — not even in a movie, it seems. Then again, the forces pulling the world apart are the same ones pushing Harry and Julie together. Despite the apocalypse, Miracle Mile is still a romance — and strangely, it manages to be one due to the bomb.

Funny, though, how movie romance has evolved over the years. The first time I saw the film, Harry’s romantic impulses felt dated, even troubling. Julie, who’d taken a Valium after Harry missed their date, spends much of the movie unaware of what’s going on. "I don’t want her to know until she has to," Harry says, and again later, "She doesn’t know yet, and I don’t think she should." (I’d love to think this particularly stifling form of romantic heroism is no longer an issue, but Passengers came out only last year.) Subsequent viewings of Miracle Mile over years have made me think Harry’s insistent romantic fantasies — of saving his girl, of living together forever after the bomb — are more sad than bad. Harry is the instrument of his own tragedy. He’s a man trying to protect the woman he loves from impending nuclear destruction. Because he has hope for the future, he doesn’t yet realize that’s impossible. He necessarily fails, and the movie knows he will.

His attitude is part of the tragedy of the movie: His romantic urges, which typify that genre, grate against the utter inevitability of nuclear destruction proposed by apocalypse movies. These genres push up against each other, as if trying to cancel each other out. The guy gets the girl, in the end; at the same time, the bomb drops. But neither proceeds strictly according to convention. For all that the bomb destroys, it makes other things possible. Julie’s grandparents, estranged for 15 years, finally talk again, and in the context of their reconciliation, Julie and Harry’s own romance is allowed to flourish. "They swore they’d never talk to each other till the day they died," Julie later says, without irony.

Toward the end of the movie, after L.A. has fallen into utter chaos and it seems clear that the danger is real, Julie stops. "Harry, Harry," she pleads, "all those chances." She’s thinking of the life she didn’t get to live. "People are going to help each other, won’t they?" she asks. "I mean — rebuilding things? I mean, the survivors." "I think it’s the insects’ turn," Harry responds. "And we’ll be together, won’t we?" Julie asks. "I mean, when it comes. Wherever we are, I mean. Even if we’re atoms. Our spirits will be together. Right?" Like all pure romances, but unlike movies about nuclear war, the movie ends with a fantasy: Julie and Harry with water up to their necks, drowning in the downed helicopter they’d intended to use to escape, spinning a dream of death as metamorphosis: rather than an end, a new beginning. Then the bomb hits. As romantic manifestations of the Reagan era hope go, it’s about as bittersweet — and naïve — as it gets. But in a movie about nuclear war, it’s maybe the best ending they could have hoped for.

Maybe that’s why the movie sticks with me, coming to mind amid our own nuclear paranoia, even if the idealism of the ’80s bears little resemblance to our current moment. The American middle class has lost the optimism, having had to come to terms with the long-term costs of all that hope. And the anger of the lower classes, which had been deliberately smoothed over by the rhetoric and imagery of the Reagan era (including Hughes romances), has been pushed to the fore of our national consciousness. Nuclear terror persists, however, even in movies: Man of Steel and other movies suggest we can’t even seem to tell a Superman story without effectively blowing everyone up. Nowadays, we favor the spectacle; we’ve moved away from emphasizing the high costs of civic life toward reveling in the calamity of all. The terror of these moments is entirely abstract: Terror is a feeling, and Man of Steel and its ilk rarely let us get to know who’s down there, on the ground, feeling it. Once, though, those people were lovers. Miracle Mile, a movie of its time, is a reminder of that moment — and proof of why we can’t relive it.