Our review of The Atomic Cafe: Collector's Edition, published January 7th, 2009, is also available.
When the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, it ushered in an age of fear that the world has had to grapple with for the last 50 plus years. Through treaties, proliferation and detente, we've steered clear of universal extinction even as we moved the minute hand of the Doomsday clock precariously close to midnight. Through it all, our government has attempted, with educational and motivational style films, to alleviate the horror and highlight the "livability" of a planet, post apocalypse. Produced during the rise of the '80s fixation with mutually assured destruction, The Atomic Cafe is a documentary style history lesson, filtering training films, archival newsreel footage, and government produced propaganda through a twisted sardonic sensibility meant to underscore the absolute absurdity of the solutions, strategies, and summations presented. Moving through the legacy of the bomb, the filmmakers present the ongoing struggle of existing in the nuclear age as part sitcom, part gruesome true-life chronicle, all the while keeping its' tongue firmly planted inside nuclear winter.
Unfortunately, there is really nothing humorous about nuclear war. Twenty years on, The Atomic Cafe's attempts at satire and irony, the inter-cutting misinformation and military films filled with vacuous lies and outrageously inaccurate depictions of nuclear survivability with real documentary footage of the ravages of atomic warfare, are misguided. What was wacky and outrageous then is insulting in a world reeling from 9/11 and daily suicide bombings. The Atomic Cafe is just no longer funny. Not even mildly. For every 4-H Club farm hick or out of touch bureaucrat who pontificates on how we prepare our fallout shelters or flush out secret-stealing Russkies, the footage of irradiated and dying people, or the shots of Hiroshima's destruction dampen or destroy the joke. There is, in particular, a shot of combat soldiers advancing on a rising mushroom cloud (to provide ground infiltration, according to the Department of Defense narration) that is so haunting, it strikes a forbidding chord that no amount of cartoon turtle antics or pop song parodies can lighten. Sure, some of the material is laughable in its naïveté. But within the current context of today's world, it's more disheartening than droll.
For a twenty-year-old documentary relying on footage from 40 plus years ago, the images and quality are surprisingly good. Docurama Films offers a sharp full screen presentation. Any flaws (grain, picture quality) are a reflection of the materials at the disposal of the filmmakers, not the manufacturer. The Dolby digital sound quality is good, but nothing special, as most of the audio is old fashioned single channel mono. Unfortunately, the rest of the disc operates as one big advertisement, since the only other extra offered is an interactive catalog for other Docurama titles. While there are selected trailers here, it would be better to offer one for EVERY film in the catalog. Also, since the film is over 20 years old, it would have been great to get the producers and directors together for a roundtable style commentary. It would be curious to see how topical and funny they think this documentary is now. While The Atomic Cafe is an important film, one that everyone should see (if only to review the mistakes we are bound to repeat in the future), its original comic pretense is lost in these troubled times. It's still an unnerving look at the misguided mindsets of the past, but you won't find yourself laughing. Crying, maybe.
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