Here’s a kind of obscure movie that wasn’t out long enough for me to see back in the ‘80s. It perfectly captures the Reagan-era atomic annihilation paranoia which, interestingly enough, seemed to peak at the end of the Cold War.
The press reveled in presenting Reagan as an amiable dunce with an itchy trigger finger which, curiously, never took effect. They and their Democratic masters called him the Teflon President. They tried to smear him and were frustrated by their failure. (It is hard to understand, really, the Press spoke with one voice back then that can scarcely be imagined now. But the economy was going gangbusters and that pretty much determines popular success or failure, I think.)
This had two effects. One was, they perhaps bizarrely gave Reagan a kind of credibility with the Communists that scared them into bankrupting themselves. But the more obvious one was that they scared the bejeesus out of the West, giving rise to apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives like at no other time in history. Possibly at a time when they were least like to happen.
So let us look at this 1988—no, really, the wall would come down the next year—nuclear war film, which stars a bunch of TV luminaries, like Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, Denise Crosby and Mykelti Williamson, as well as cult favorites O-lan Jones, John Agar and Jenette Goldstein, to say nothing of a cameo by actor/director Peter Berg.
The story goes that trombonist Harry (Edwards) and waitress Julie (Winningham) meet each other at the museum, but due to a stray cigarette and some sleepy pills, Anthony ends up missing a late-night date with her. This puts him at his date location at 4:00AM in the heart of the Miracle Mile district.
While waiting outside Johnny’s Diner, the phone rings, but it’s not Julie, it’s some guy in a nuclear silo trying to reach his dad. He’s distraught because, apparently, he’s been ordered to launch.
Now, Anthony has about an hour and fifteen minutes to live, and he ends up trying to convince others in the coffee shop that it’s for real, and they’ve got to get out of the city. But as they’re in progress, he decides he has to get off—he has to go get Julie.
So it’s sort of a surreal love story.
Why the movie works (for me) is the surreality that attends this adventure. The love-at-first-sight-turning-to-boning-on-second-date. The bird that carts off the cigarette. The possums that fall from the tree. The transvestite. The 1988 cell phone. The cop covered in gasoline who shoots her gun. The old couple that refuses to talk to each other till the day they die. The helipad search for vitamins. The eerily lit all-night gym. The rioting. The elevator make-out.
All in an area I had lived in for a couple of years. Not Miracle Mile—I didn’t have that kind of money. But I knew Johnnies. (I didn’t eat there; I was more a Norm’s guy. But I’m pretty sure that they didn’t have the Bob’s Big Boy-style giant dude with twirling hamburgers.) The Fairfax district (where the museum is) still looks basically the same, and I visit the museum and other sights occasionally. So there’s a little of the Volcano-type thing that appeals to me, too.
Some people just think it’s all stupid. I don’t know: None of us really knows how we or anyone else would act in that circumstance. I think a little weirdness is in order, frankly. Some say this movie was originally meant to be part of “The Twilight Zone” movie which, I suppose, wouldn’t have fit any better or worse than John Landis’ entry, though Vic Morrow might still be alive.
If there’s a moral to this week’s entry, it’s that a lot of people, even into 1988, months before the wall came down, thought the end was nigh. In the next few years, nuclear apocalypse movies would take a big hit. (Even though an unstable Russia may have been far more dangerous than a decaying USSR.)
Now, while people still worry about nuclear bombs, they worry a lot less about total nuclear annihilation. Which goes to show you that sometimes it really is darkest before the dawn.