Tales from the nuclear age.
Dir. Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, & Pierce Rafferty, 1982, 86 min, Viewed via Hulu
Really, when you think about it, humanity having the power to wipe itself out via horrific nuclear death is actually pretty funny. Otherwise, Dr. Strangelove wouldn’t be a classic. I’ve watched a lot of docs about nukes for this blog (so many, in fact, that in retrospect, not doing a theme week seems like a missed opportunity), and all of them have been terrifying to one degree or another. But none of them tried to be funny the way that The Atomic Cafe does. Consequently, this film is perhaps scarier than all the rest of them, and by a significant margin.
Directors Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, and Pierce Rafferty went through thousands of hours of footage from the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, culled the best bits (“best” being a relative term in this topic, usually meaning “most awful”), and strung them together into this film. This is storytelling through pure primary sources. There is no modern commentary in this movie, save whatever is suggested by the editing (and it suggests a hell of a lot). All the visuals and audio are taken from period films. The result is a full chronicle of the atomic age, from the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, through the beginning of the Cold War, and up to the time right around the Cuban missile crisis.
The movie consists of newsreels, instructional films, propaganda pieces, cartoons, songs, and all manner of things which fall under more than one of those categories. They all attest to a time of immense, almost crushing paranoia in America. While no one seemed to get what nukes were fully capable of (the simplistic explanations offered by the educational films almost seem to suggest that the government preferred it that way), almost everyone understood, at least subconsciously, the sword of Damocles hanging over all their heads. Many agitated for the use of the bomb against the Soviet Union, even as it became clear that nuclear war is a zero sum game. It was a dark period, albeit an excessively bright one.
See, all mass media was made to be ultra-entertaining in those days. Granted, the same applies today, but the paradigm of what constitutes “entertainment” has shifted from its more wholesome ideal to something more resembling the bloodlust of a Coliseum audience. But back then, propagandists insisted on dressing up haunting details about blast radii and radiation with cheerful music and peppy narrators. Take, for instance, the famous “duck and cover” short film, in which a cute cartoon turtle demonstrates how one must be prepared to hit the floor and curl into a ball at any moment, since you never know when World War III may begin. Or an instructional for soldiers that cheerfully informs them that they don’t have to worry about dying of radiation in a nuclear conflict, since they’re likely to be blown up first.
This is comedy blacker than pitch, the kind of stuff that makes you laugh because the only alternative is to claw at your face with the chilling realization of how close we came to heedlessly destroying ourselves. At times, these clips seem like a parody of what we typically think of when we think of the 1950’s, with well-dressed white people everywhere and green lawns for all and microwave dinners at the ready. And yet its all real, demonstrating that sometimes reality is more ridiculous than satire.
The Atomic Cafe is masterful, if for no other reason than the laudable job done in editing it together from such a huge sea of sources. But it’s also a terrific exercise in a sustained sense of tone, as it builds a picture of life dancing obliviously at the edge. Nothing seems to have made sense about the Cold War. This movie is a cavalcade of bad information, deceptive politics, and pointless fighting. But it’s also funny, which makes it all the darker.