Atomic Cafe, The (1982)

Atomic Cafe, The (1982)

“When not close enough to be killed, the atomic bomb is one of the most beautiful sights in the world.”

Archival footage documents Cold War America’s attitudes towards nuclear threat.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Documentary
  • Nuclear Threat
  • Propaganda

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this immensely popular documentary (made during the height of anti-nuclear-energy demonstrations in the early 1980s) “serves up a powerful smorgasbord of mind-blowing clips” from mid-century newsreels and governmental, military, and educational films which “both warned us about the Russian menace and eased our fears about the effects of nuclear fallout”. Audiences in 1982 were rightfully thrilled to revisit the media images and messages that most had naively accepted as legitimate and true just a few decades back; while such historical clips are now widely available on websites such as YouTube, the work of compilers Jayne Loader and Kevin and Pierce Rafferty at the time was clearly a lengthy labor of archival love.

I disagree with Peary, however, that the “picture would have even more impact and import if we learned whether these ridiculous propaganda films were the result of government naivete or were fully intended to deceive the public about the dangers of a nuclear build-up”; adding any kind of voice-of-God narration or commentary would disrupt the film’s remarkably effective approach of simply presenting the clips as-is, and leaving viewers to decide what to think about them. With that said, Loader et al. do utilize creative editing and juxtaposition to highlight some of the most egregious mistruths perpetuated by officials: as we hear government spokesmen talking about the lack of effects of nuclear testing in the South Seas, for instance, we see deeply disturbing footage of burned natives. Whether Americans today are any less deceived by “official” government statements is debatable; despite our presumed 21st century media savvy, it could be argued that we’re just as gullible and susceptible as we were in the 1950s.

Note: If you can stomach it, watch the recent, highly disturbing documentary Countdown to Zero (2010) for an update on the state of nuclear threat in our world.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A powerful montage of archival footage from diverse sources

  • Strikingly horrific imagery of nuclear explosions

Must See?
Yes, as an effective and historically relevant documentary.


  • Historically Relevant


3 thoughts on “Atomic Cafe, The (1982)

  1. An absolute must – not only for all ffs but for any (esp. American) film watcher old enough to absorb it.

    This very powerful collection still resonates and my guess is it always will. As philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s good to remember and to be reminded of all of what’s here.

    The doc speaks potently for itself.

    ~as it gets beyond midway, it seems to put on something of a light (and what can be interpreted as comic) touch in certain segments. But, to me, it would be kind of a mistake to find the thread of the film at all funny at any time, and I doubt that’s ever the intent of the filmmakers. (Unless, of course, there’s a slight ‘comment’ on American idiocy, which would be appropriate, considering certain things people are shown saying – some of which are zingers!)

    What’s most genuinely amusing about the film, though, has nothing to do with its subject matter. The footage quite often shows ‘average people’ being interviewed or appearing in training films, etc., and it’s a bit bizarre seeing how many of these people have no idea how to act or talk in front of a camera. (Note the one guy in a military film who appears to have learned some of his lines phonetically and looks sideways to read the rest of his lines off cue cards.)

    This is top-notch documentary filmmaking, even if it is ‘as is’ archival footage put together. It flies like a shot and packs a punch! Bravo!

  2. It is far more effective to have the grainy government shorts play without narration. The effect is more stark and it allows for the intelligent viewer to make up their own mind. Another documentary that benefited from the same technique was Point of Order about McCarthyism. Had narration been used in a film about such a charged topic, it would have robbed the finished product of its persuasive power. Best let the evidence speak for itself.

    This is a movie about a tenuous time in American history. America was booming its middle class while ramping up for a protracted Cold War with a relentless adversary. And Atomic Cafe captures that marvelously. It’s loaded with humor and scary duck and cover footage. Scarier still are the jingles and radiation-friendly attitudes caught on film of average folks. Comedy and horror do go together.

    I don’t indict the US government for making those feeble Civil Defense films which were short on details like the effects of radiation poisoning or vaporizing your town. We just have to thank God we made it through that period without destroying all life as we know it. Atomic Cafe reminds us that that was a very real possibility then.

  3. Fletcher, have you seen “Countdown to Zero” (2010), the recent documentary about the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation? It scared the pants off of me, and speaks to your final paragraph. Should be follow-up viewing after this one…. Maybe I will update the post to reflect that.

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