In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan was beginning to ramp up American military production and renew emphasis on nuclear warfare. As a counterpoint, a trio of filmmakers dredged up artifacts from the last time atomic bombs were a serious, publicly felt issue. Culling from hundreds of different sources, Jayne Loader and Kevin and Pierce Rafferty assembled 1982’s The Atomic Cafe, a morbid scrapbook of the USA’s nuclear heyday. Inducted into the National Film Registry in 2016, the documentary has undergone a 4K restoration by IndieCollect, currently being released in theaters across the country by Kino Lorber.
Loader and the Rafferty brothers combined newsreel footage, propaganda films, candid and news photos, cartoons, public service announcements, songs, and other materials from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, all dealing with nuclear weapons and their looming threat to human civilization. Of course, as multiple clips demonstrate, a great deal of citizens at the time didn’t seem to fully comprehend that threat. In one scene, a man at a town hall assures the audience that atomic explosions are easily survivable from the proper distance. Many selections showcase the flippancy with which popular culture approached the bomb. There is nothing America cannot commodify.
Refraining from any use of contemporary voiceover, the documentary skillfully employs a host of pointed juxtapositions to draw out the contradictions marking its time period. It is not just a historical text but a media critique, contrasting public-facing productions like newsreels with internal government information that wouldn’t be widely available until decades later. The filmmakers dissect how American Cold War propaganda (Harry Truman calls the bomb “a gift from God”) directed the country’s culture into putting a cheerful, upbeat face on possible apocalypse. The appropriate reaction to mankind’s newfound ability to destroy itself was to retreat in the other direction. For the sake of defeating communism, the US government needed people to think the opposite.
Despite its supremely dark subject matter (or maybe partly because of it), The Atomic Cafe is one of the funniest documentaries ever made. No matter how many times the film reuses the punchline of cutting from beatific Americana to a shot of a nuclear blast vaporizing everything before it, it never gets old. The tension between the upbeat face of the postwar years and the moral rot of consumerism and nationalism underneath it is resolvable only through laughter — or going slightly mad.
Not only has The Atomic Cafe not aged, but it feels more sharply relevant than ever. And that’s not just because the threat of nuclear war has currently reached the point where the American and North Korean presidents taunt one another over the size of their respective missile-launching buttons. Heavily irony-based humor hit the mainstream like never before in the ’80s, and today large swathes of popular culture communicate almost solely in ironic terms. In taking the almost incomprehensible existential threat of the bomb and turning the philosophical absurdity of the government’s and public’s treatment of it into a formal absurdity, the film presages the modern social media trend of making each piece of horrific news into a meme. Contemporary viewers will likely find Duck and Cover, the chipper cartoon short made to teach schoolchildren about atomic warfare, even funnier than ’80s audiences. Perhaps they’d label an image of Bert the Turtle retreating into his shell as a “big mood” (which it absolutely is).
Indeed, The Atomic Cafe will stop being relevant only if the possibility of nuclear calamity disappears entirely. There are two ways that will happen. In one, the documentary will remain a valuable historical piece. In the other … well, not much of anything will matter.