Apocalyptic now Bleak 'Miracle Mile' disturbs as it speeds toward Armageddon By Robert S. Cauthorn The Arizona Dally Star "Miracle Mile" holds forth with one of those premises you might discuss with a particularly gruesome friend under the influence of too much caffeine and too little sleep: What would you do if you picked up a ringing pay phone and heard someone on the other end tell you that the missiles have been launched and we have 70 minutes to live? Steve DeJarnatt's film refuses to consider the plight of diseased nuclear survivors; there won't be any. It is set in Los Angeles, and Los Angeles will be hit hard. The surf's up for the last time. No more fun. The only thing left is pondering how to spend your final minutes on Earth. Dark and mean, this insomniac's glimpse of apocalypse slips back and forth between being a Hollywood action flick and a bit of tough-minded speculation from the independent cinema. It can claim to be high concept; the situation can be summed up in a line. Even so, Hollywood blanches at movies with "Miracle Mile's" resolute bleakness. Anthony Edwards stars as Harry Washello, the jazz musician who picks up the phone and gets the ultimate wrong number. He receives the call at 4 a.m. on a pay ' phone outside an all-night diner. The voice claims to be calling from a U.S. missile installation. It's a young GI trying to warn his parents that someone has pushed the button. L.A. will be destroyed in just over an hour, he tells Harry. At first Harry doesn't believe the call. A hoax in poor taste, certainly. Then there are noises on the other end of the line. Gunshots. A new voice comes and tells Harry to forget everything he's heard. Shaken, Harry tells the motley diners about the call. No one believes at first. But those gunshots bother them. And here DeJarnatt cedes to insanity for the first of many times in the movie. Among the diner patrons is this yuppie monster with a computer and cellular phone. She is, miraculously, part of a network that can help people escape from nuclear holocaust. All they need to do is make it to the rendezvous, where a helicopter will take them to a jet, which will take them to the bold new world of yuppie nuclear survivors. Harry, however, must make a stop first. He recently fell in love with a waitress named Julie (Mare Winningham) and must rescue her. He separates from the group and heads out to find Julie. . i m . ,Y. J4l k fib ,riJ mm 1 cr ' - Julie Peters (Mare Winningham) and Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards) get the ultimate bad news In director Steve DeJarnatfs disturbing "Miracle Mile." The last 70 minutes of the movie are in real time and mark off the final minutes of the characters' lives. Anyone who expects a happy ending hasn't been paying much attention to modern thermonuclear weapons. This is no dream from which Harry will wake sweating and relieved. (One studio interested in the film allegedly tried to pitch the "and then I woke up" angle to DeJarnatt. No dice.) Admirably, the film wants to horrify its audience and provide the public with images to accompany our nagging fears of nuclear war. It succeeds in being harrowing, to a point. Of course, it would be hard not to make nuclear conflagration upsetting. At the movie's premiere during last fall's Festival of Festivals in Toronto, an audience member asked DeJarnatt if he was anti-nuclear war. "Well, there aren't too many people who are pro-nuclear war," the writerdirector replied. However, curious failures in "Miracle Mile" come close to trivializing the bomb. Harry's search for his new lover in the face of holocaust remains deeply moving, if melodramatic. A subplot involves Julie's elderly, estranged parents, who confront the inevitable destruction by worrying whether they will have time to reconcile. Graced with appealing performances, these elements make for sober drama that deplores the maddening waste of nuclear war. Review "Miracle Mile," rated R, stars Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham. It Is playing at Campbell Plaza and Crossroads. Scuttling this, DeJarnatt opts for the exploding carmachine gun approach as Los Angelenos gradually wise up to the coming destruction and rush into the streets in a convulsive bid for survival. Pure Hollywood. Action rules. And action is an opiate that distracts us from issues of the spirit. Here, the soul-searching of "On the Beach" and "Testament" runs headfirst into the action of "Mad Max." In real life, chaos would follow a warning of nuclear attack. And to a certain extent DeJarnatt must be lauded for the way he shows the folly of survivalist fantasies. These people are all doomed and merely make their last moments on Earth more hellish. The film cannot find a balance, though. Throughout, the La Brea tar pits and the dinosaur bones they contain stand as a metaphor for our own extinction. In the face of the megaviolence his people commit, DeJarnatt makes the audience wonder if the human race shouldn't be consumed in flames. He tries to push "Miracle Mile" into the realm of a surreal nightmare. The movie enjoys the spectacle of the survival angle so much that it loses track of its emotional core. Breathless from so much running about, it forgets the utter sadness of the situation. The final scene can rattle an audience, and the movie as a whole has many elements to recommend it. Our real choice, DeJarnatt says, is whether we will align ourselves with the lovers of the world or the rabid destroyers willing to launch missiles and gun down others in a bid to survive. But the terms of the argument are too familiar and pander so much to our appetite for film violence that DeJarnatt's thesis is undercut. Visions of a panicked population have been a staple of every apocalyptic movie from the 1950s on, whether the threat was nuclear war or its science fiction proxies of giant grasshoppers, crabs, et al. Had "Miracle Mile" calmed down a bit and felt more comfortable with its heart than its pyrotechnics, it would be a work to cherish.