The Atomic Cafe

The Atomic Cafe (1982) movie poster

(1982) dir. Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty
viewed: 12/01/08

The end of the world was nigh.

And that was more than fifty years ago.

The Atomic Cafe is an excellent, unusual documentary, released in 1982 and was already by the time I saw it in the mid-1980’s, a cult classic.  It had been almost as long since I had seen it, but I always remembered really liking the film’s humor and style.

On watching it last night, I realized that the film wasn’t so utterly free-form as I remembered it, but rather follows the advent of the Nuclear Age and the Cold War pretty much through the H-bomb tests in the late 1950’s.  But what is so clever and interesting about the film is that there is no narration, but its entirety is constructed from found footage: military training films, newsreels, tv commercials, and uses a striking score of obscure folk country and rock’n’roll songs that sing about the Nuclear Era.  The juxtapositions are often comical as are some of the straight-out moments selected from the archival footage.

The film begins with the Trinity test explosion, follows the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and then swerves, much as history did, right into the Cold War.  While the film does show some graphic footage of Japanese survivors and non-survivors, as well as the effects that some H-tests had on swine, the film is almost as much about the Americana, the American culture and propaganda surrounding this explosion into a new era of fear and potential Armageddon.  There is much ignorance and naivite exhibited, and while watching kids “ducking and covering” to survive an Atomic blast is amusing, the world of the time of the film, the 1980’s, was still the latter part of the Cold War, a war that we had no idea would come to an end by the end of the decade.

The Atomic Cafe, to my mind, is one of the finest films of the 1980’s, a radical, clever, strange document, a construct with cautions, but an awareness of culture of the impact of the massive explosions, the lack of understanding of the impact of nuclear fallout, the proverbial Pandora’s box.  There are two excerpts people in particular who come across as intelligent on the issues in and of their times.  One is a military man who rode on the Enola Gay in the bombings in Japan and who took much heat for developing guilt over the devastation that it wrought.  As well, president Dwight D. Eisenhower speaks of the power that science has developed but perhaps that morality has not yet caught up with.  A profound statement, truer than anything.

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