Part of our ongoing Film Portal series, Chris Houkal brings us the documentary The Atomic Café (1982) directed by Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, and Pierce Rafferty. Using original newsreel footage, government films, cartoons, and other materials from the 1950s, the directors cut together a critical assessment of Cold War America.
In the tradition of found footage films by directors such as Bill Morrison and Jay Rosenblatt, The Atomic Café tells its story via numerous spliced together bits and pieces of old newsreels, cartoons, and various films. Through creative editing the film culminates in a damning critique of post-war American values.
It’s hard to believe there ever was a time when Americans actually looked to ‘the authorities’ for guidance. I didn’t count the number of times this phrase – or some version thereof – came up in the 1982 anti-nuke film The Atomic Café, but it was pretty darn often. Personally, I don’t think there ever was such a time, but many of the clips that comprise this film would have you believe otherwise.
Carefully pieced together from news archives, commercials, interviews, and other assorted bits and pieces of early Cold War era footage, The Atomic Café is essentially a feature length found footage documentary. As its name suggests, it’s a darkly comic take on an extremely serious matter: nuclear war.
The film begins at the end of The Second World War as the U.S. set out to retain its dominance over the rest of the world. Judging by many of the clips in The Atomic Café, it was a time when American officials fluctuated between scaring the hell out of us on the one hand and assuaging our fears on the other. Both Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, for example, spun the atom bomb into something glorious and peaceful. After dropping the bombs on Japan, President Truman informed the American people in congratulatory manner that “we’ve spent more than 2 billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history and won.” Eisenhower waxes poetic about how rich we are and how it’s up to America to ensure a peaceful world for all. By contrast the Director of Civil Defense tells the American people that, despite what they’ve been told, there is no way to stop a Russian nuclear attack once underway. Meanwhile, President Johnson soberly (and strangely) lists the cities that would fall should an attack occur. What were we to believe?
This is the essence of The Atomic Café, of course, this dialectic via juxtaposition of clips countering one another. For example, a silly army film ridiculing people’s understanding of atomic weapons segues into a commercial featuring lots of smiling people downing “Atomic Cocktails,” which then turns into a sequence involving the “Bio-Medical Effects” of an atomic explosion on pigs. And this, in turn, leads to a scene of American G.I.s undergoing similar testing, unaware of the effects (Read this). What’s really interesting is how they – with help from a song called “Atomic Cocktail” connecting them all – flow together perfectly. You could probably watch this five-minute stretch of the film without realizing the implication, yet come away with a negative gut reaction. Multiple viewings are a necessity.
In another example, during some kind of town-hall type Q&A session a woman asks the speaker (an expert? Some guy?) how far they need to be from a blast to survive it. He confidently replies that if you were further than twelve miles from detonation you’d have a good chance of survival. Inter-cut with, and undermining, his statement is a shot of an actual explosion: it’s hard to believe that anyone within 100+ miles would survive this. As if responding directly to the first man, the next clip features a professor from Columbia University who says it’s laughable to think anyone would survive a blast – even in an underground shelter – within 2,000 miles of a detonation. Aside from the subject matter itself, there’s an interesting qualitative difference between these two clips. The former is very glossy looking, well-lit, and choreographed, while the latter is black and white, rough-looking, and has an off-the-cuff feel to it. In other words, the first screams Hollywood while the second is more natural. This seems significant: I wonder which had more cred to a fifties audience?
Then there’s one of the men responsible for dropping the atomic bomb on Nagasaki (he calls this his greatest thrill). As he speaks, images of celebrating Americans seem to back him up just before some rather gruesome shots of bomb victims appear. To emphasize the absurdity, the soundtrack features a ridiculous radio show comparing the damage to the ‘shambles’ of some 40’s baseball game. A bit later The Enola Gay’s pilot Paul Tibbets coldly suggests the bombings offered a ‘classroom experiment’ for experts studying the bomb’s human toll. His dry analysis is followed by images of these unsuspecting guinea pigs, which in turn is followed by more images of a victorious – and unblemished – America in stereotypical scenarios circa mid-20th century: mom serving dinner, people driving big cars, junior smiling at the table… all things post-war America imagined it was.
Of course, some of the snippets included simply stand on their own – they are not contradicted by anything nor are they made into montage because they don’t need to be. They inherently damn themselves. One disturbing scene takes place on Bikini Atoll just before the bomb’s detonation. We see an American military official meeting with a group of natives who, the narrator happily tells us, are “simple and cooperative.” The American is there to remove the people from their homeland because the island is, well, due to be blown up. The American informs the people how these tests will improve all of mankind. Amazingly, the Bikini king is fine with evacuating his island, chalking it up to God’s will. The American predictably replies: “In God’s hands it can be nothing other than good.” The narrator then reminds us that the islanders are a nomadic people and welcome a little variety in their lives. They leave and the rest is history. (Well sort of: Read this to learn what has since happened to these people.)
In another sequence, we see interviews with respectable looking Americans, including members of the clergy, in which each asserts his or her belief that we must build the H-bomb. One woman says that we Americans are constructive, not destructive – but nevertheless must build the bomb. Another man, a member of the clergy, sounding a lot like a future Ronald Reagan, says the U.S. shouldn’t necessarily use the bomb but should look at it as a guardian and protector. I must say that this sort of editing always troubles me. What was left out? How do we know that some interviewees weren’t opposed to the bomb, their interviews not included only because it conflicted with the filmmaker’s agenda? We can’t, unfortunately, and are left with only what we have: a number of religious defenders of the bomb, which is disturbing enough.
Like the clergy interviews, I am troubled by the montage sequences. For example, there are some clips of various people sitting around listening to the radio as the bomb tests at Bikini Atoll are underway – or so we’re led to believe. As the announcer asks, “How will this new bomb affect you?” some of the listeners appear grim while others play cards, do household chores, or otherwise go about their business. The reporter’s description of the event on the soundtrack is all that links the clips. The interpretation is either that people had grown indifferent to the news or that they felt safe in the knowledge that their government was keeping them protected. The problem is that we have no idea where these clips came from – they could’ve come from anywhere, the only reason for their inclusion being the radio at the heart of the image. This completely undermines some of the message of the film: the manipulation of facts to send a message consistent with an agenda.
One byproduct of watching a film of this nature, made up of so many images from different sources all of a particular time, is an appreciation of the cumulative message contained in the images themselves, in this case how we saw ourselves circa 1950. It amazes me how homogeneous American families come off in the family-centric clips peppered throughout The Atomic Café. Dad’s always sucking on a pipe, mom is always immaculately dressed, and brother and sis are always adorable, well-behaved little moppets. Oh, and lily-white. And it’s all too American that another propaganda piece (a commercial?) equates a shopping center with all things good and wholesome and contrasts this to what you might find in its place under a communist government. These things are so perfectly representative of the romanticized world order of the 1950’s American, and in this way just as troubling as anything idealized under communism. Nonconformists must have had it rough in this sanitized, watered down version of America.
The film ends with a montage of various scenes we’ve seen along with some new ones of a bomb hitting a big U.S. city (Minneapolis in one shot). Cartoons, propaganda shorts, and footage from actual blasts are all cut together in a way that makes the notion that we can actually survive a nuclear attack seem ridiculous. In the aftermath, surrounded by a surprisingly large portion of his home, a father tells his kids that all they need to do now is clean up, relax, and wait for the authorities to tell them what to do…. Yeah, the fifties were scary.
Watch The Atomic Cafe here.