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The Atomic Cafe

At this particular point in history we may have stopped quaking in our boots from the constant threat of nuclear war, but 1982's The Atomic Cafe is still timely, illustrating as it does both the panic borne of media-fed hysteria and the deliberate misinformation fed to the public in times of crisis. This darkly funny, deeply disturbing documentary pieces together stock footage from the 40's and 50's to create a Dr. Strangelove-flavored — yet completely non-fiction — black comedy. At times more than a little glib at the expense of the subject at hand, filmmakers Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader and Pierce Rafferty deftly manipulate footage from newsreels , public service films and army training materials to both mock and illuminate the public's perception of "the atomic threat" a mere 50 years ago. Public statements by officials like Eisenhower, Nixon, and (a surprisingly youthful) Lloyd Bentsen are presented, along with clips from educational films that assured citizens nuclear war was nothing to really worry about — just pop down into your bomb shelter for a few hours, then head back upstairs to sweep up. In one jaw-dropping cartoon segment, a helmeted character named Bert the Turtle tells kids that, when they see a flash, just "duck and cover" — there's even a song to help them remember. But as we laugh at the silliness of it all, there's an element of sheer horror as well. Footage is included from army films in which troops were told that radiation wouldn't harm them as long as they kept their eyes shut and their mouths covered; almost unbelievably, this is followed by official government footage of soldiers at the Trinity test getting faces full of irradiated dirt at the blast site. Following orders, they then climb out of trenches and march on foot towards ground zero. The danger in the giddy subversiveness of The Atomic Cafe is in viewing it merely from the position that "Gosh, people sure were dumb back then." It can certainly be enjoyed on that level, but the film has a more important point to make — that the government may spoon-feed us a bunch of comforting lies, but we're also willing participants in the cultural fictions we create out of fear. It's something to think about the next time you hear the words "Director of Homeland Security" or find yourself saying that "It's worth giving up a few freedoms to keep everyone safe." Docu Rama's DVD release comes on the 20th anniversary of the release of The Atomic Cafe, but unfortunately includes no extras. Commentary from the filmmakers would have been great here — how long did it take to put together all the footage? Did they run into problems getting permission to use government films? How do they feel about their project two decades later? The full-screen transfer (1.33:1) is fine, considering that some of the original source material was less than pristine, and the audio is surprisingly crisp, given the same considerations. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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