Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A popular hit in 1982, as a new wave of anti-nuclear sentiment greeted the Ronald
Reagan administration, The Atomic Cafe brilliantly uses old propaganda films to highlight
their own lies. To the tune of songs like 'Atomic Cocktail', we see America being taught that
its prosperity is threatened and that preparation for massive retaliation is essential. A time
capsule of kitschy music and embarassingly naive visual mementoes, the compilation of film clips
builds to create a vision that sees through the surface of the p.r., to a nation gripped by
fear and denial.
Using declassified government and military training films, newsreels, civil
defense and educational films, and pop songs, cold war attitudes toward the nuclear dilemma and
the arms race are examined. Official statements are contrasted with the often condescending
stance of public 'information' designed to assure the viewer that nuclear war is survivable
and nothing to worry about. As Bert the Turtle demonstrates in an animated film for children,
all you must do to walk away from an atomic attack, is 'duck and cover'.
In the 1950s, our government saw the nuclear threat as simply another public relations problem.
The Atomic Energy Commission had been given a free hand, with all the authority
and secrecy of a top military project, and public dissent was addressed with a blitz of
officially-sanctioned information. The fun of The Atomic Cafe, of course, is seeing all
the out-of-control propaganda methods used to 'sell' nuclear
complacency as if it were dish soap: misleading semantics ("85% of the fear comes from 15% of the
threat"), dramatic animation (heroic USAF bombers wipe out scores of 'hostile enemy cities' in a
single strike) and insulting reasoning (the risk of humorous household accidents is equated with
the threat of nuclear bombs). The clips are nonsensical and we laugh at them, but it's a
nervous laughter that contains the realization that they were made by a self-satisfied Authority
convinced of its mandate to mislead the public. The films seem to be laughing at their susceptable
'target' audience, like smug Madison Avenue execs enjoying the effectiveness of their cheap
Liberals with an agenda to promote will mistakenly label all of the original content of The
Atomic Cafe as government propaganda, which it definitely was not. Once the ball of public
sentiment gets rolling in
a free society, the flag is soon taken up by all sources of public information and popular entertainment.
The ingredients of The Atomic Cafe don't all come from some central Ministry of Propaganda.
The source films:
Actual military training and debriefing films. This declassified material, such as the film used to
prep soldiers for live nuclear bomb combat drills, tends to be straightforward and informational.
There's no ironic manipulation used there; the awful truth is that the people exposed to
the test were clearly misinformed about the dangers of radiation. We see soldiers told that
all will be fine, and then the blast effect blows a pressure wave of contaminated dust into every
pore in their bodies. Other films clinically document tests with shop mannikins
and live pigs. We see the pigs suffering direct blast effects, with some being loaded onto trucks,
still alive and suffering traumatic burns and injuries. After some brief photos of Hiroshima victims,
this is the most graphic material. Yet an 'amusing' title labeling the pig pen as 'Pork City', makes
the soldiers on screen look like callous torturers. Other film excerpts
play as if they were commissioned as damage control for AEC goofs, as when entire populations of
docile and agreeable Polynesians had to be moved from their accidentally irradiated island homes. The
lack of guile on the part of the filmmakers, is evident in the fact that they were unaware of their own
incredibly condescending attitude toward the 'primitive' and thus irrelevant natives - one moment
even suggests that a smiling local woman will enjoy the 'company' of her handsome soldier protectors.
Like WW2 Nazis filming their own war crimes without concern for their possible later use as
evidence, a hidden factor in these films is that their subjects sincerely believed that they
were doing the right thing.
Newsreels. Accompanied by loaded headlines that presume the unimpeachable rightness of our side,
and the abject Evil of our enemies, these dramatic 'news' features were made by the newsreel departments of
movie studios that already functioned as message-carriers for the government. The no-holds-barred
the Frank Capra Why We Fight series of WW2 propaganda films are used to sell the concept of
separate 'free' and 'slave' worlds, and to impress with fearful-looking animations of nuclear strikes.
Publicity stunts, like one town's pretending to be overthrown by Communists, are seized upon as
spontaneous demonstrations by a right-thinking public.
Educational and Public Service Informational films. Often funded by uncredited government agencies,
these independent film productions by companies large and small naturally competed to find effective
ways to present a predetermined message. Technically, this is real propaganda, because sophisticated media
techniques are specifically employed to indoctrinate the presumed passive and suggestable
viewer. Madison Avenue cleverness meets ex-Signal Corps resourcefulness, as Andy Hardy-like families
withstand direct attack with little distress. Atomic attack is repeatedly portrayed by flashes of
white light, that warn people of impending danger, instead of being deadly in themselves.
Pulling a picnic blanket over one's head or climbing under a desk enable people to escape blast
effects that level buildings. These are the real Big Lie films, that audiences believed because they
wanted to believe, or because they had no other sources of information.
This kind of paternal dishonesty is easily recognized by kids, and Savant believes it promoted
disaffection and alienation among the youth of the fifties, whose yardstick for truth was the
liberal satire of Mad Magazine. The snickering Junior High creeps ruining the screenings
with their jeers knew when they were being lied to, and quietly rejected all the lessons of
society, good and bad. If these propaganda pictures were seen in a fair context, they'd have been
rejected in the '50s in the same way we laugh at them now. But then they were shown to captive
audiences - schoolchildren, people in work gatherings - where it was implied that one's teachers
or employers expect passive acceptance of their content. So it didn't matter if the shows were
insultingly fake, or if they starred familiar actors like Hugh Beaumont pretending to be Army Generals.
TV and Radio Entertainment. The Atomic Cafe doesn't employ any Hollywood film clips, no doubt
due to high licensing costs. But there are a number of talk show clips that demonstrate
that spokesmen willing to expound extreme ideas were always welcome on the air. Congressmen and 'experts'
are all too eager to exterminate millions in an atom war. A clergyman practically foams at the mouth
while anticipating the 'regrettable' need to use deadly force to defend one's fallout shelter against
one's own neighbors. The dozen or so amusing 'atomic' novelty songs used as a
soundtrack, are about romance heightened by atomic lust, or promises of desire in the fallout bunker. A
bunch of these mostly painful pop tunes are country or rockabilly regional efforts. Since arcane
tunes exist for almost every subject under the sun, it's not known whether a song urging MacArthur to
nuke Korea, or a rockin' tune riffing off the lyric, 'Fire, heat & lighting', was heard by millions,
or never even released.
The Editorial Reorganization of Found Footage:
The makers of The Atomic Cafe clearly have a message to get across, and they use the inherent
absurdity of their source material in creative ways to achieve their goals. But they're careful
to make sure they leave them essentially untransformed. When we see Nixon and J. Edgar
Hoover posing with a strip of microfilm, we know we're watching a newsreel. The content isn't cheated.
Except in wrapup montages, narration from one source isn't used over another. When raw footage is
available, candid moments are seen of speechmakers (including President Truman) when they don't know
the cameras are rolling. Caught laughing incongruously before a solemn report on an atom threat,
Truman comes off not as callous, but human - a far cry from Ronald Reagan's cheap jokes about nuking
Russians accidentally broadcast in the 1980s. 1
The basic tool is to juxtapose contradictory information. Soldiers admitting they got mouthfuls of
(irradiated) atomic dirt are intercut with clinical footage explaining that any entrance of nuclear
contaminants into the body can be deadly. Inane examples of people using conventional civil defense
techniques to survive atomic attack are countered by docu footage of Hiroshima and real bomb tests.
Government spokesmen are caught in outright lies about supposedly insignificant atom mishaps in the
South Seas, and we're confronted with evidence of massive human suffering. The atomic disaster in
Japan, after irradiated fish were distributed from a tuna boat clearly very near a nuclear test, are
answered with yet another government spokesman claiming that the boat was far away from danger.
The film has an attitude of fairness. Richard Nixon comes off as patiently civilized next to a
blustering, bullying Nikita Khruschev. 5
Dukakis' running mate Lloyd Bentsen, urging voters to petition
congress to nuke Northern Korea, is just as bomb-crazy as any Republican. Hiroshima pilot Paul Tibbets
is allowed to make his full speech and express his contradictory emotions, in footage usually
shown much more selectively.
Finally, besides its sense of humor, the film has a great sense of poetry. In one deeply affecting
passage, President Eisenhower talks about our rich society, and the vague, troubling unease it is
experiencing. We hear an excerpt of emotional, disturbing Miklos Rosza music from the Film Noir classic
The Killers, as a lonely car moves down a dark highway in America. Eisenhower goes
on to verbally distill the concept that mankind is too primitive to comprehend its own technological
terrors. It's a great speech, from a President not remembered for great speeches, and The Atomic
Cafe uses it to merge philosophical reflection with the Noir despair. 3
The joke's on us: the bigger truth of The Atomic Cafe.
Thanks to the ludicrous footage provided by the
'wacky' atom films of the fifties, The Atomic Cafe is very funny, in the "Is this for real?"
genre of subversive humor. Its satiric content is practically built-in. Unfortunately, there's a
liberal tendency while watching satire to feel falsely impowered with a truth the only you, the
hip viewer, share with the clever satirists. Satire is supposed to be a way to air those truths
polite society doesn't want to hear, but the mechanics of comedy in our culture
have developed to a point where the content is irrelevant, and the irreverent attitude is everything.
Couple that with the fact that telling the truth loud and clear means less than nothing in a
culture engulfed by so many lies big and small, from every media outlet and every source of
The Atomic Cafe is a good example of entertaining 'irreverence' used to bring home a political
but defeatists can easily argue that it preaches only to the choir of the converted. Looking at
the show, it's far too easy to conclude that, "Gee, people sure were dumb back then. We'd
never fall for such ridiculous nonsense now." Comparing the wisdom and truth of The Atomic
Cafe to present-day reality, evokes a feeling of despair ... Today, terms like Terror and Evil
are used as media weapons to stifle the truth. People don't want Truth or justice, they want to drive
new cars, win the ball game, and be assured that God belongs to them alone.
Docu Rama's DVD of The Atomic Cafe is a satisfactory presentation that has no extras, even
though its controversial subject matter screams out for input from the filmmakers. How do they feel
about their film twenty years later? Is raising public consciousness a good thing in the long run? This
is a 20th Anniversary edition with no commemorative content whatsoever. As the IMDB lists a
running time four minutes longer than this edition, Savant would greatly appreciate any
information about possible cuts made to the show.
The quality of the print and compression is fine, considering that much of the source material used
was rather uneven, showing some scratches (no big deal) but also some unstable footage that
jumps in the gate (sometimes distracting). The sound is very clear for audio that probably
originated as 16mm optical tracks. The package uses a nice image from the original ad campaign. An
excellent tool for discussion, and a great way to inform children about how historical events from
half a century ago are crucially relevant today, The Atomic Cafe should be shown in classrooms
and civic meetings everywhere, whether people want to see it or not ... but that would fulfill
Savant's definition of propaganda, wouldn't it?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Atomic Cafe rates:
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: March 18, 2002
1. Ever seen those moments, when Reagan joked that he could wipe out
Moscow in 30 minutes? Funny how some newsworthy footage is effectively suppressed in
our 'free' society.
3. The villain of Kiss Me Deadly, the Noir touchstone of the atomic
age, talks about the world becoming more primitive with every scientific advance, using classical
allusions and a mythical framework. Both Eisenhower and writer A.I. Bezzerides were clued-in to
a major truth of our atomic world.
4. "What's a war, Daddy?" says the little girl in the ads for We Were
Soldiers. Her father answers that a War is when bad people try to take the lives of good people,
and your Daddy has to go try and stop them. That anybody over ten years old doesn't start tearing up
theater seats over a scene like that says it all. We have a political climate where dissent has
been marginalized and neutralized, and self-servicing garbage like the above passes unchallenged.
5. This, of course, is the context of the famous Khruschev, 'We will bury you!"
quote. Apparently refusing to be charmed by the latest American washing machines, the scary Soviet Prez
was that the Soviet Union would soon outstrip the West in the production of quality appliances - "We'll
bury you in consumer goods!" were supposedly his real words.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2002 Glenn Erickson
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