The Atomic Café plays tonight at 7pm and tomorrow at 1pm at MoMA, as part of their 40th anniversary celebration of Film Forum’s first-run documentary programming.
As a compilation film, The Atomic Café is no revelation, but given the quality of the footage being compiled it hardly needs to be. A skillful audio/visual assemblage of newsreels, army training movies, television spots, radio broadcasts and novelty pop songs, Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty and Pierce Rafferty’s 1982 film offers a startling cultural record of the atomic age as seen through the official rhetoric leveled at the average United States citizen. Proceeding in roughly chronological order and avoiding much in the way of their own rhetorical flourishes—excluding a final recreation of a domestic nuclear attack which allows the filmmakers to display their editing chops but which seems an unnecessary bit of speculative drama—Loader, Rafferty and Rafferty let the material speak for itself, and when your holdings include such outrageous items as Burt the Turtle advising children to duck-and-cover, a newsreel announcer positing the suburban shopping mall as the crowning achievement of capitalism (take that Soviets!) and a U.S. Army film that compares the risk of atomic energy to that of cooking on a stove or showering (what with that slippery soap), that’s probably not such a bad strategy.
Still, those who laugh at the quaintness a bygone era—and admittedly there’s a grim humor to be found in the sight of schoolchildren being told to drop to the ground and cover their heads as a ward against nuclear attack—do so at their own risk. Much of the rhetoric on display will be eerily familiar to those who haven’t stricken the Bush II administration’s public idiom entirely from their memories. LBJ calls USSR the “enemy of freedom” while Truman invokes God’s guidance to justify his use of the A-bomb. The politics of fear are well in place (newsreels advising children to be constantly vigilant for a flash in the sky) as is an insensitivity to the destruction being visited upon foreign civilians (one radio wag compares Hiroshima to “Ebbets Field after a double-header with the Giants”). Watching this footage today, it’s easy to see how little the rhetoric has changed; it may have gotten a little more sophisticated, a tad subtler, but we’ve simply replaced one enemy with another, while nuclear war remains every bit as much a threat as it was in the 1950s.
As a sober reminder of the danger of such fear-mongering propaganda, the filmmakers cut in newsreels of angry, ignorant citizens demanding the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, (“Don’t fry them,” reads one sign, “they’ll stink to [sic] much. Hang them.”) having been sufficiently whipped into hysteria by the press. While documents later surfaced revealing Julius’ probable guilt, no evidence exists to suggest Ethel’s involvement and, either way, the execution based on questionable testimony helped pave the way for McCarthy’s witch hunts and is shamefully symptomatic of the era’s shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach to Communism (or, in our age, Arab terrorism). In the movie’s most stirring moment, the filmmakers cut to a teary newscaster reporting on the couple’s execution. As he relates the grotesque circumstances of Ethel’s death—her initial turn in the electric chair failed and she had to be electrocuted a second times—stumbling unbearably over the word “stethoscope”, the glowing oval of his face emerges from the surrounding darkness of the set, making him seem nothing less than a grim prophet of death, come to deliver a final warning against the politics of hysteria.