THE ATOMIC CAFE got its start when co-creator Pierce Rafferty found a catalogue of thousands of films made by the US government, the key to a potential goldmine of absurdity. Although he and his collaborators initially planned to make a film about propaganda, they narrowed their focus to
concentrate on films about the birth of the atomic age, when the government needed to both develop support for its own nuclear tests and allay fears that such weapons would inevitably lead to Armageddon. While the scope of the materials included here is impressive (especially given that they did
it at a time when such films were not archived), their time might well have been better spent on a broader topic. THE ATOMIC CAFE reveals plenty of disinformation, but lays no blame--most of the ridiculousness we see seems to stem from stupidity rather than any willful intent on the part of the US
government to mislead people.
THE ATOMIC CAFE proceeds in generally chronological order, beginning with the missions that dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII. After the war, the US prepares to test more atomic devices on islands in the Bikini Atoll, where natives are told that the
US government wants to turn this destructive force into something constructive. In the late 1940s, as the Cold War begins to escalate and the USSR develops nuclear weapons of its own, fear begins to spread about a potential third World War that would be fought with such weapons. As the conflict in
North Korea grows, officials like Senator Lloyd Bensen come out in favor of using nuclear weapons against the Chinese. An army training film makes fun of anti-war protesters who claim that Communist countries don't want to go to war.
In some of THE ATOMIC CAFE's most horrifying footage, American soldiers witness bomb tests; having been told by their commanders that they will be safe, they hide in trenches only long enough to escape the initial impact of the blast before standing up to look at the mushroom cloud. (A chaplain
calls it "a wonderful sight to behold" in another Army film.) When changing winds blows radiation from a test toward a nearby town, residents are told to stay inside for an hour and not worry. Children are shown the infamous "Duck and Cover," in which "Bert the Turtle" teaches them how to respond
to a bombing. Americans rush to build fallout shelters, which they assume may have to contain them for anywhere between an hour and a week. (In one of the few examples of antinuclear footage used, spokesmen from Columbia University counter a government statement that people more than 12 miles from
the center of a blast will be safe by noting that the firestorm would cover 2000 square miles, incinerating anyone in a fallout shelter in that area.) The film ends with a montage of dramatized scenes of people reacting to news of a nuclear attack, followed by a montage of explosions.
To the extent that THE ATOMIC CAFE works as anything other than a supercilious joke, it is in making us realize that authoritative, official-looking speakers don't always know what they're talking about--a point that would have been better served with a broader range of subject matter. Despite
pressure from their backers, the team that created THE ATOMIC CAFE chose to present their collage with no narration or supplementary "update" footage. While some of the footage is so chilling as to be effective in and of itself, much of it is simply dated, leading us to write off what we see as
the product of ignorance. And much of it assumes too great a sophistication on the part of the viewers, most of whom are unfortunately unlikely to know much about the political climate of the post-WWII era that led to the Cold War. The soundtrack features period songs with nuclear-inspired lyrics
that range from belligerent to bizarre, like a Bill Haley fantasy in which the only survivors of an attack are the singer and 13 women. While compelling from an archival viewpoint, these songs confuse the film's tone even more. On its initial release, THE ATOMIC CAFE seemed novel for its use of
footage that had long gone unseen. Now that "antique" films have entered the American consciousness, albeit largely due to this film's influence, too much of it seems merely facile, an ineffective joke about a still-vital subject.
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