Review: 1982 documentary ‘The Atomic Cafe’ is back and kookier than ever
The kicky 1982 cult classic “The Atomic Cafe,” enjoying a theatrical re-release in a new 4K digital restoration is, well, a blast to watch, particularly at this often head-scratching moment in American history.
This documentary curio, directed by Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader and Pierce Rafferty, is a compilation of mostly black-and-white clips from post-World War II era government-produced training and educational films, newsreels, commercials and more, related to America’s then-obsession with the atom bomb.
The U.S. was in a conundrum after dropping nuclear weapons on Japan: What if another country — say, oh, maybe Russia — built its own bomb and aimed it at us? The result of that nightmare scenario was a propaganda crusade aimed at preparing the average American for nuclear attack while, at the same time, selling folks on the virtues of the bomb. Talk about a mixed message.
Although it was fear-mongering of the first order, this weirdo information campaign was frequently presented via jaunty, jingoistic, team-spirit-type films and civil defense broadcasts featuring everyday folks incorporating extreme — and sometimes extremely silly — survival techniques into their daily routines.
Viewers old enough to remember “duck and cover” drills and homemade fallout shelters (and suits!) will get a special charge out of “Atomic’s” many archival gems.
But the film also serves as a vivid reminder of a deeply paranoid age when Russia was America’s most anathematic boogeyman, which is perhaps the most pervasive, often over-the-top sentiment expressed in many of the clips here. It’s a delicious irony to behold given the current pro-Kremlin leanings in certain circles (“ovals?”).
The movie’s time-capsule exuberance also includes pointed glimpses of such then-key politicos as Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and the “dreaded” Nikita Khrushchev (who almost seems quaint compared to Russia’s current strongman, Vladimir Putin). Such 1940s and ’50s touchstones as gather-round radios, newfound suburban bliss for “perfect” families (read: middle-class whites) and the advent of television and its oddball offshoot, TV dinners, also help set the scene.
At the same time, there are some genuinely unsettling images involving the true-life effects of atomic bombing and radiation, America’s duplicitous nuclear testing program in the Marshall Islands and, of course, those iconic “mushroom clouds.”
The film is shrewdly and smartly edited to make its paradoxical points without the need for a unifying voiceover to seal the deal. Besides, who needs narration when you’ve got such kooky romantic musical ditties as “This Cold War With You” and “Atom Bomb Baby” peppering the soundtrack?
‘The Atomic Cafe’
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; also 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday at Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena, and Laemmle Claremont 5
Inside the business of entertainment
The Wide Shot brings you news, analysis and insights on everything from streaming wars to production — and what it all means for the future.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.