July 12, 2020

The Atomic Cafe (1982)
Grade: 74/100

Director: Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, Pierce Rafferty
Stars: Richard Nixon, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson

What it's about. A documentary about the early years of the atomic bomb, from the American perspective. The documentary is compiled entirely from vintage films made between 1945 and 1959. The majority of footage is from U.S. government sources, such as military training and propaganda films. There are also snippets from newsreels, advertisements, cartoons, and other commercial shorts.

There is no narration, or captions, or new footage of any kind. The soundtrack is comprised of the audio from the vintage films, and studio musical recordings from the era, such as "The Hydrogen Bomb" by Al Rogers and His Rocky Mountain Boys. More memorable, though, is "Thirteen Women" by Bill Haley and the Comets, about a man who finds he is the only male survivor from a nuclear bomb and has his pick of the surviving women.

The three first-time filmmakers spent many thousands of hours viewing prospective vintage film and distilling that material into a tidy 86-minute documentary. Many of the clips are difficult to believe today: the natives of Bikini Island are "eager" (according to a U.S. military propaganda film) to be moved to another island so that their homeland of untold generations can be subjected to an atomic bomb test. Alas, a Japanese fishing boat was in the vicinity of that explosion, and the crew of that vessel develops ghastly skin ulcers (and who knows what else) from the nuclear fallout.

The most famous clip is from "Duck and Cover", a government-made short aimed at schoolchildren that teaches them to drop to the ground below desks and cover their faces as soon as they see a flash in the sky from an atomic bomb detonation. Of course, such action would be futile unless the students were many miles away.

Another surreal moment shows U.S. soldiers in a military exercise advancing toward a mushroom cloud. Yet another depicts an Army chaplain proclaiming that the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb "is one of the most beautiful sights in the world." A short clip shows a dutiful father dressing up his preteenaged son in a homemade Hazmat suit so that the boy would be safe from an atomic bomb while riding his bicycle to school.

Harry S. Truman is positively gleeful as he makes the announcement of the success of the Hiroshima atomic bomb drop. His joy contrasts with horrific footage of the Hiroshima dead, burnt to the bone and coated with a thick black layer of carbon. Other ambitious politicians of the era get their say on the atomic bomb, including future Presidents Johnson and Nixon, and future Vice President candidate Lloyd Bentsen.

How others will see it. The Atomic Cafe was five years in the making. Although it has since achieved cult status, it also caused a minor stir in the year of its release. BAFTA nominated it for Best Documentary in 1983. It was not until 2016, however, that it was added to the prestigious National Film Registry, which puts out an exclusive annual list of movies most deserving of preservation.

Today at imdb.com, The Atomic Cafe has a scant 3800 user votes. In comparison, Gandhi, released the same year, has more than 200K user votes. The user rating of 7.6 out of 10 is consistent across all demographics.

How I felt about it. I was shamefully unaware of this film's existence until I came across a recent obituary for Kevin Rafferty, one of the producer-director-editors of this dive into postwar Americana. The filmmakers were all baby boomers, and small children when most of the vintage stock was first filmed.

The user reviews have a variety of reactions ("alarming", "fascinating", "horrifying", "hilarious"). Some note that the entirety of the film's video and audio is from vintage media, but has been carefully edited and compiled to present a specific point of view.

But that point of view is open for interpretation, and has multiple facets. First, the atomic bomb is deadly. This comes as little revelation for anyone. Second, the U.S. government lied to its citizens, and soldiers, and schoolchildren, throughout the era. Mostly, they lied through omission. You can't survive a nuclear bomb by cowering beneath a desk. Exposure to fallout radiation is much more harmful than they admitted. Once a communist country has the atomic bomb, it is no longer possible to directly wage war against it.

Political considerations aside, The Atomic Cafe is constructive in that it demonstrates the power of editing. It is possible to edit many mediocre vintage film shorts into a very good documentary feature. It is achieved by selectively retaining those clips that exhibit self-parody, and are laser-focused on the subject at hand.