The Atomic Cafe is a 1982 American documentary film produced and directed by Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, and Pierce Rafferty.
The film covers the beginnings of the era of nuclear warfare, created from a broad range of archival film from the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s – including newsreel clips, television news footage, U.S. government-produced films (including military training films), advertisements, television and radio programs. News footage reflected the prevailing understandings of the media and public.
A quote which illustrates how the producers used archival footage to illustrate the absurdity of the government’s public nuclear propaganda of the time: ‘Civil defense film: Be sure to include tranquilizers to ease the strain and monotony of life in a fallout shelter. A bottle of 100 should be sufficient for a family of four. Tranquilizers are not a narcotic, and are not habit-forming.’ Though the topic of atomic holocaust is a grave matter, the film approaches it with black humor. Much of the humor derives from the modern audience’s reaction to the old training films, such as the ‘Duck and Cover’ film shown in schools. A quote to illustrate what can be perceived as black humor culled from the archives: ‘Army information film: When not close enough to be killed, the atomic bomb is one of the most beautiful sights in the world.’
The filmmakers opted not to use narration, and instead they deploy carefully constructed sequences of film clips to make their points. Jayne Loader has referred to ‘The Atomic Cafe’ as a ‘compilation verite,’ meaning that it is a compilation film with no ‘Voice of God’ narration and no new footage added by the filmmakers. The soundtrack utilizes atomic-themed songs from the Cold War era to underscore the themes of the film. About 75% of the film is made up of government materials that were in the public domain. Many reviews of the film are quick to point out large amount of old tax money behind the film, an irony not lost on the filmmakers. Though they could use those public domain materials for free, they had to make copies of the film at their own expense. This along with the newsreel and commercial stock footage that comprises the other 25% of the film (along with the music royalties) represents the bulk of the film’s expenditures.
When the film was released, film critic Roger Ebert discussed the style and methods the filmmakers used, writing, ‘The makers of ‘The Atomic Cafe’ sifted through thousands of feet of Army films, newsreels, government propaganda films, and old television broadcasts to come up with the material in their film, which is presented without any narration, as a record of some of the ways in which the bomb entered American folklore. There are songs, speeches politicians, and frightening documentary footage of guinea-pig American troops shielding themselves from an atomic blast and then exposing themselves to radiation neither they nor their officers understood.’
More recently, critic Glenn Erickson discussed the editorial message of the film’s producers: ‘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 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.’