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THE ATOMIC CAFE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Directors:  Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Docurama
Features:  None
Length:  88 Minutes
Release Date:  March 26, 2002

“When viewed from a safe distance, the atomic bomb is one of the most beautiful sights in the world.”

Film ****

Dr. Strangelove may have been the first film that dared laugh at the absurdity of nuclear annihilation, but filmgoers could take solace in at least one fact:  it was a work of fiction, thought up by filmmakers and staged for our pleasure.

The Atomic Café, the documentary turned cult favorite from 1982, offers no such safety barrier.  This movie is entirely comprised of historical footage, United States government propaganda films, and music, all from a period beginning with Hiroshima and ending maybe just prior to the Cuban missile crisis.

Hiroshima ushered our world into the Atomic Age, and we hear one of the men from the Enola Gay mission describing the account in interesting detail.  Apparently, in lieu of the words “atomic bomb”, the fliers were simply given photographs of the earlier test detonation and told that’s what it was going to look like when they carried out their mission.  Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were selected because they had not suffered any bombing during the war; as “virgin targets” they would make for greater post-war study of the bomb’s effectiveness.

That was only the beginning.  Directors Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader and Pierce Rafferty increase the horror and absurdity with their juxtaposition of real images in their film.  Not long after Japan surrendered, we see both sights of American celebration and the Japanese suffering from the effects of the bomb. 

Everything about the Atomic Age was apparently hunky-dory to Americans…that is, until word got out that the Soviets had successfully tested their first nuclear bomb.  And while the cultural image of the 1950s has always been one of happy suburbanites and family values, the undercurrent of fear was beginning to take its toll both on our morality and our common sense.

The government, of course, did everything they could to put a positive spin on nuclear war, resulting in a series of Army films aimed at “educating” us citizens about the unthinkable.  Many of these make up the bulk of The Atomic Café, and are generally downright funny…until, that is, you start to think about how nonchalantly our government lied to us for so many years.  One expert in such a film claims that if you were at least 12 miles away from a 20 megaton explosion, you had a good chance of survival.  Another non-government scientists then discusses the firestorm from a 20 megaton bomb, which could spread up to 2,000 square miles from the spot of detonation!

Absurd doesn’t even begin to describe all the contents of this movie…yet all are true and straight from the source, with no modern comments or explanation offered or required.  Some of the other high (or low) points include:

- President Harry S Truman being barely able to contain his giddiness prior to a somber radio address in which he thanks God that atomic technology fell into American hands first.

- The government informing a smiling and pleasantly receptive people on Bikini Atoll about how they expect the atom bomb to become a great and positive force for good.  Nothing like happy residents to give a nuclear test site that homey feeling.

- The meteorological miscalculation that sent fallout from a Pacific island test explosion across populated areas.  One victim was a Japanese fishing boat, where the sailors not only received radiation poisoning, but their cargo of fish had to be disposed of as well.

- Priests appearing in government films to promote the building of the H bomb, as well as to warn those in fallout shelters of the dangers of opening their doors to needy passersby.  Good Samaritans be damned!

- A father inside a fallout shelter telling his children that if there was indeed an explosion, they would wait “about a minute” before going up see if it was clear enough to “clean up”. 

- The execution of a married couple, the Rosenbergs, as America’s first two Atomic Age traitors.  The announcer describing the gruesome death of Edith Rosenberg sounds distinctly ill-at-ease, but manages to punctuate his account with an affirmation of justice served.

- An experimental maneuver in which Army soldiers actually head into the blast area after a test explosion.  This maneuver was conducted in the event of a Soviet invasion of the U.S., whereby the government might decide to detonate a nuclear device on our home soil as protection.  It’s scary enough just that someone thought about doing that, but even worse that it was so real they actually prepared our boys for it!

- A government film that explains how Communists spread their propaganda by…get this…average American citizens practicing free speech by so much as suggesting that maybe we shouldn’t go to war in Korea.  This would be absolutely hysterical, if not for the fact that in our own age, leftists are constantly giving aid and comfort to our enemies under the guise of 'free speech'.

And so on, leading of course to the infamous “duck and cover” films which repeated the phrase over and over again like a mantra.  Ducking and covering would keep us alive in a nuclear attack.  Thankfully, modern common sense disproved that line of thinking before an actual event ever had to.

But the Atomic Age was more than a state of consciousness.  It became part of our national culture as well.  Listen to the string of songs that accentuate the movie’s soundtrack…some of them are amusing, but some of them quite distasteful…it’s frightening to think these tunes were actually played on the radio!  And of course, ‘atomic’ became a good Madison Avenue buzz word, showing up on everything from taxi cabs to cocktails.

The film thankfully, as mentioned, stops just short of the Kennedy years and the Cuban missile crisis.  That was our first real nuclear scare in this country, and we didn’t need to be reminded of it in order to make what we had just seen on the screen seem ridiculous.  The Atomic Café came along at just the right time in our history, and the timing continues to seem right 20 years later.  It lets us laugh at our fears, but only slightly.  The grim reality underneath is still plenty disturbing.

Video **

How do you judge the quality of a film compiled entirely of old news and government film footage?  Sparingly, I think.  This picture shows all the normal effects of age, wear and lack of preservation, but it’s probably safe to say this may be the best the movie will ever look.  In a way, the “old” look enhances the film’s feel of…is nostalgia the right word?  Something like that.  At any case, the disc is very watchable and decently presented…it just won’t be a demonstration DVD in your library.

Audio **

Likewise, the audio track, which is a simple stereo mix.  It’s serviceable, but undemanding and unspectacular.  Most of the film is dialogue and old music from scratchy records, but everything is intelligible and clear from start to finish.  Oh, yes, there is an occasional explosion to punctuate certain scenes.

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.

Summary:

As comedian Gilbert Gottfried once said, “Let me tell you something about nuclear holocaust…you think it’s hard to get a cab NOW…”  Sometimes, we have to laugh at the horrific and unmentionable.  The Atomic Café is both an intelligent and absurd documentary that allows us to do just that, by taking us back to a time when nuclear war threatened our very existence, while our government kept giving us cheerful assurance that it wouldn’t really be so bad, and that our way of life would always continue. 

And remember, if you should perish in a nuclear attack because you forgot to duck and cover, don’t blame the government.  You’ve had your warning.