If Stanley Kubrick had made Dr. Strangelove as a sort of documentary instead of black comedy, it probably would’ve been something like The Atomic Cafe. The Atomic Cafe is essentially a collage of newsreels, civil defense films, military films, public service announcements, and radio broadcasts all dealing with the atomic bomb, nuclear war, and how America of the 1940s and 1950s dealt with living with such a powerful weapon.
It offers a unique glimpse of America during the Red Scare, when using the A-Bomb was seen as a God-given right and responsibility, and every measure must be taken to counter communists. As such, the film exposes the jingoism, racism, and rampant commercialism that has often existed in America. However, the film also gets a little heavy-handed and monotonous in places as we watch the parade of footage. It also seems hard to believe, looking at some scenes with a “modern” mindset, that these kind of attitudes were held by Americans.
That’s not to say the film isn’t interesting. Far from it, in fact. I often found myself captivated by the surreal images I was watching. The Atomic Cafe is full of memorable images, including the “Duck and Cover” song featuring Bert the Turtle. Other unforgettable images include footage of the aftermath in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the gruesome results of atomic tests on pigs, and numerous anti-communist statements made throughout the film.
The list of memorable scenes would probably go on for another page or so, but they really must be seen to be believed. I was quite amused/disturbed with the PSA where the commentator takes time in the midst of his nuclear war preparedness speech to advertise for shopping malls as the supreme example of what America is all about. I guess some things never change.
One of the most memorable images to emerge out of the 20th century is that of the mushroom cloud. This film shows the reactions to that image, made by those who first lived in its shadow. There were times that I laughed out loud and when I shook my head in disbelief at what is now seems like such obvious lunacy and idiocy. Perhaps it’s wrong for me to say this seeing as how I only experienced the Cold War’s end, but if the footage in The Atomic Cafe is typical of the sentiments shared by most Americans during that era, it’s a wonder we ever survived the Cold War.