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A popular hit just as a new wave of anti-nuclear sentiment greeted the Ronald Reagan administration, 1982's 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 embarrassingly naive visual mementos, the compilation of film clips creates a vision that sees through the surface of a nation gripped by fear and denial.
The movie is made of repurposed 'official' film footage. Declassified government and military training films, newsreels, civil defense educational films, and pop songs reveal Cold War attitudes toward the nuclear dilemma and the arms race. Official statements are contrasted with frequently-condescending 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 dealt with the public aspect of the nuclear threat as if it were 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 misinformation. The fun of The Atomic Cafe is seeing 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 (nuclear bombs are equated with humorous household accidents). 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 susceptible 'target' audience, like smug Madison Avenue execs enjoying the effectiveness of their cheap hard-sell tactics.
Liberals with an agenda to promote will mistakenly label all of the original content of The Atomic Cafe as government propaganda, which it definitely is 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 menu at The Atomic Cafe didn't come from some central Ministry of Propaganda.
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; the awful truth is that the people exposed to the test were bluntly 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 manikins and live pigs. We see the pigs hit by direct blast effects, and then loaded onto trucks while still alive and suffering traumatic burns and injuries. After some brief photos of Hiroshima victims, this is the film's most graphic material. Yet an 'amusing' original sign labeling the pigpen 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 AEC 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 short subjects were made by the newsreel departments of movie studios that already functioned as message carriers for the government. The no-holds-barred techniques of 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 employed to indoctrinate the presumed passive and suggestible viewers. 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 enables people to escape blast effects that level buildings. These films sell the Big Lie that audiences believed because they wanted to believe, or because they had no other sources of information.
Kids easily recognize paternal dishonesty, and Savant believes these films promoted disaffection and alienation among the youth of the fifties. Their 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 subconsciously rejected all society's lessons, 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 they were often shown to captive audiences -- schoolchildren, people in work gatherings -- where it was implied that one's teachers or employers expected 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' seem 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. One rock song riffs off the lyric, 'Fire, heat & lighting'. Since arcane tunes were written to exploit every subject under the sun, it's not known whether a song urging MacArthur to nuke Korea was heard by millions, or never even released.
The makers of The Atomic Cafe clearly have a message to get across, and to achieve that goal they use the inherent absurdity of their source material in creative ways. But they're careful to leave the clips 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 as callously flip -- reminding us of when Ronald Reagan's cheap joke about nuking Russians was accidentally broadcast in the 1980s.1
The basic tool is to juxtapose contradictory information. Soldiers admitting they got mouthfuls of irradiated 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. We're also confronted with evidence of massive human suffering. The atomic disaster in Japan, after irradiated fish were distributed from a tuna boat that venture too near a nuclear test, is 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 Democrat 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.
Besides its sense of humor, the film has a great sense of poetry. In one deeply affecting passage President Eisenhower talks about our affluent society and the vague, troubling unease it is experiencing. As a lonely car moves down a dark highway, we hear an excerpt of quietly disturbing Miklos Rosza music from the Film Noir classic The Killers. Eisenhower verbally distills 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. The Atomic Cafe uses it to merge philosophical reflection with Noir despair.3
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 empowered, with a truth the only You, the hip viewer, shares with the clever satirist. 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 evolved to a point where the content is irrelevant, and the irreverent attitude is everything. "Everything is interesting, but nothing matters." Telling the truth loud and clear amounts to less than nothing in a culture engulfed by so many lies big and small, from every media outlet and every source of entertainment.4
The Atomic Cafe is a good example of entertaining 'irreverence' used to bring home a political message, 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 distractingly. 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:
1. Ever seen those moments, when Reagan joked that he could wipe out Moscow in 30 minutes? It's 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, uses classical allusions to talks about the world becoming more primitive with every scientific advance. 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 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-serving 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 said that the Soviet Union would soon outstrip the West in the production of quality appliances: "We will bury you in consumer goods!" were reportedly his real words.