Docurama // 1982 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // January 7th, 2009
I am not an atomic playboy.
It isn't like I need another reason to be happy I grew up today instead of the 1950s but, if I did, The Atomic Cafe would do it. The beginning of the Cold War was a scary time and would only get more so in the '60s and beyond; at any moment the world could be destroyed without warning. The fates of the world's citizens were out of their hands, instead entirely dependant on the whims of a few leaders who, we hoped, were rational people. In retrospect, of course, they were a least sane enough to not kill all of us but, given the tone of the time, this was far from certain.
The threat of nuclear war was real, but how much of our daily paranoia was fostered by our own government? If the footage in The Atomic Cafe is to be believed, the answer is plenty. Presented as an unnarrated compilation of archival footage and propaganda from the Office of Civil Defense, The Atomic Cafe is an invaluable document that clearly shows the disturbing paranoia that can run rampant in a government and in their people. Originally released in 1982 when war still ran cold, but even by this time, it was easy to see the silliness of the advice they gave the citizens. Outside the context of this heightened paranoia, we can laugh at how wrong the information is and how condescendingly it was present. Within that context, however, it is horrifying how easily the citizens were bamboozled. Those making the "informational" films deliberately mislead the viewers to help feed their anti-Communist agenda, build a healthy fear of the enemy, and inspire awe in the destructive power of the American military.
At once hilarious and horrific, The Atomic Cafe is an ideal document of the rampant jingoism and whitewashed optimism of the 1950s. The clips come from innumerable sources and are accompanied by equally disturbing pop songs about the greatness of the bomb. The footage of Burt the Turtle in the incomparable "Duck and Cover" has become iconic, but more bizarre is the thought that covering your head with a blanket could protect you from a nuclear blast. In other clips, we get faux-scientific explanations about how radiation works. See, it can only enter the skin through open wounds. The answer then, and it's so obvious, is to wear long sleeves. Honestly, I don't know what we were afraid of.
As scary and funny as the film itself is, the extra features on Docurama's release amplify both, as well as adding some galling anger into the mix. Eight of the propaganda films that were used in the film are presented on a second disc in their original, unedited form. In addition to the famous "Duck and Cover," really more about minding your elders than it is about surviving a nuclear blast, we have selections such as "Our Cities Must Fight." Here, the military foresees the treasonous action of American citizens of leaving town instead of staying to die. In "House in the Middle," we learn that keeping a clean house and painted fences are the keys to survival (this one is, by far, the most offensive film in the group). The hilarious "Self Preservation in an Atomic Attack" (funny title, too) teaches us that a nuclear bomb is like a woman: you should never underestimate her power. "Operation Crossroads" contains brilliant footage of nuclear blasts on Bikini Atoll along with "safety procedures" to help keep the soldiers safe. "Operation Cue" features harrowing test footage of atomic blasts and their effects on homes and mannequins (those who saw the remake of The Hills Have Eyes can see here the inspiration for the best scene in the film), but more harrowing is the buffet-style picnic the soldiers have on the site the day after the test. "Survival under Atomic Attack" exploits the footage of burned and maimed Japanese civilians after the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; our survival chances don't seem so good. Finally, we wrap up the disc with "Birth of the B-29," a rah-rah piece on the construction of the famous bomber and how all of America helped make it possible. After all the weird mixed messages in these films, this one makes me feel way better about the situation, because we all chipped in to murder millions.
Picture and sound are both unrestored and identical to the old video release. The edited footage, from so many sources, is highly inconsistent in both regards. The black and white film suffers greatly from contrast problems and the color footage has bad tinting issues. Clarity in both is substandard at best, though these problems actually add to the nostalgia of these old films and were completely expected.
Docurama's two disc set, when we combine The Atomic Cafe with the accompanying short films, presents a definitive study on the fear and paranoia rampant during the Cold War. Funny at one turn and horrifying the next, this set is a must-see for anybody with an interest in war, the '50s, or the damaging effects of propaganda.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Uncut original propaganda films