Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2008

The Atomic Cafe

By David Luhrssen
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Released after the accident at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, at a time when Ronald Reagan escalated the arms race with the Soviet Union, The Atomic Café was a film in opposition. The documentary on American psychology in the first decade after the bombing of Hiroshima, exploring how the U.S. government sold its nuclear policy and how the public responded, was compelling propaganda for the 1980s “No Nukes” movement.

Out now in a DVD Collector’s Edition, The Atomic Café (1982) was a milestone in activist filmmaking for its ironic juxtaposition of images, starting with a bad routine by American comedians about Hiroshima set against footage of the carnage. Michael Moore and dozens of lesser-knowns were surely influenced by the presentation.

Many of The Atomic Café’s bullet points were dead on: it’s unsettling to watch an interview with the gleeful pilot who dropped the second atom bomb on Japan or G.I.s being sent without safeguards into nuclear test zones or the misinformation of government newsreels advocating family fallout shelters and ducking under desks during a nuclear attack. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations seemed torn between keeping America at a state of acute readiness for a Soviet assault and minimizing the dangers once the bombs fell. Anxiety was good, panic not.

While The Atomic Café scored many points so effectively by being entertaining, it sometimes slid toward smugness. One could draw the conclusion that most Americans at mid-century were mindless boobs, unlike their more enlightened Baby Boomer children. The Atomic Café’s directors did valuable work unearthing so much archival propaganda footage but fell short of producing a well-rounded history lesson. They didn’t show why the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan or why Americans were overjoyed to be sparred the prospect of a deadly invasion of Japan’s home islands. By treating the Soviet Union and the Communist Party as a cartoon rather than a totalitarian system on a roll, they failed to comprehend the source of postwar American anxiety. With the opening of Soviet archives it became clearer that networks of Communist spies were at work in the U.S. They were especially interested in atomic secrets.

The bonus material of U.S. propaganda films from 1945-1955 (collected on disc 2) allows viewers to see the past for themselves unfiltered by the directors’ scrim of irony. Many of those films were mendacious and disingenuous. Occasionally they were downright silly. “House in the Middle” (1954) castigated messy housekeepers (including those who left too many magazines laying around) for threatening national security. The bigger the mess if the bomb falls nearby, the greater the likelihood that the house becomes a tinderbox! It’s easy to see how the absurdity of such material inspired the tone taken by The Atomic Café.

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