A 1982 documentary presents the myriad ways that the U.S. government deceived and indoctrinated the public about nuclear weapons during the Cold War.
Released at the beginning of the Reagan era, in a time of heightened Cold War rhetoric, the 1982 film The Atomic Café is a documentary about the way the U.S. government framed the dangers of the nuclear age to its citizens, from the late 1940s to the early 60s. The picture was put together by three intrepid independent filmmakers—Kevin & Pierce Rafferty, and Jayne Loader—from years of research combing through declassified government film collections. It doesn’t need any voice-overs, explanations, or editorializing. Simply by presenting the newsreels, military films, educational and public service films, and other archival material from that era, the movie exposes the entire approach of the U.S. (not just the federal government, but the corporate world as well) to informing the citizenry of this country, as the willful, wholesale deception and criminal abuse of power that it was.
The filmmakers sprinkle the picture with amusing atomic-themed songs from the period, and the spectacle of such blatant propaganda coupled with widespread gullibility is often quite funny. But the laughter is tinged with horror as you realize that this all really happened in our country. There is, of course, Bert the Turtle telling the kids at school to “duck and cover” when they see the flash of the detonation. A minister discusses whether a family should allow another family into their bomb shelter (they shouldn’t). A military training film ridicules people who are concerned about nuclear fallout as alarmist crackpots. Most chillingly, we see army troops being prepared with comforting lies before they witness an explosion in Nevada at close range, with nothing protecting them but helmets and goggles, and then ordered to march towards the bomb site as part of an emergency training exercise. Only once does the film represent the true reality of things. A couple of scientists in an interview from the 1950s point out that a hydrogen bomb blast would flatten everything within a huge radius, and that people in bomb shelters would be cooked alive.
Behind every misleading and condescending clip in this brilliantly arranged film is the sense of an establishment so drunk on its arrogance that it was willing to accept the destruction of entire cities as part of the game. It’s no wonder that the next generation rebelled in the 1960s. When you’re repeatedly lied to on a matter of life and death, not only personally but for the entire world, it tends to make you distrustful of authority.
This is a brilliant movie because it uses the very materials that were employed to hoodwink us fifty or sixty years ago, to alert us to the inherent danger of imperial “superpower” ideology today. It’s one of those rare films that is both wildly entertaining and politically provocative.
The Atomic Café is available on DVD.