In 1982, the hilarious documentary “The Atomic Café” reminded us that the threat of nuclear war was no joke

By on April 19, 2017

Released into theaters in 1982, at the peak of the so-called “No Nukes” era, a hilarious and satirical documentary called The Atomic Café — which aired frequently on “Night Flight,” and even inspired our occasional “Atomic TV” segments — reminded viewers that the once-imminent threat of nuclear war was no joke.

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The film is edited entirely from original material to recreate the atmosphere of fear, conformity and official insanity which characterized Cold War culture and politics, beginning with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ending with an apocalyptic vision of a future nuclear holocaust.

The acclaimed, chronological collage-style documentary film — which cost $300,000 to make, most of its costs due to the use of newsreel and commercial stock footage, and payments of music licensing fees — was produced over a five-year period through the collaborative efforts of its three directors: Jayne Loader, and brothers Kevin and Pierce Rafferty, who had formed the production company “Archives Project Inc.”

The filmmakers did receive some financial support from outside sources, including the Film Fund, a New York City based non-profit.  Grants comprised a nominal amount of the team’s budget, and the film was largely funded by the filmmakers themselves.

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At the time the film was released, Ronald Reagan’s presidency was a few years into his first term, during a period marked by a seemingly never-ending arms race with the Soviet Union in which the Reagan Administration seemed to be moving from an essentially defensive grand strategy of containment to a more aggressive nuclear strategy that required a large U.S. nuclear arms buildup, the largest since the Korean War.

Sound familiar? If it doesn’t, you really haven’t been watching the news lately, have you?

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Reagan’s Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Thomas K. Jones publicly and stupidly claimed at the time that nuclear war would not be nearly as devastating as everyone assumed.

“If there are enough shovels to go around,” he said, “everybody’s going to make it. With enough shovels, everyone could dig a hole in the ground and cover themselves with two or three feet of dirt, and survive the nuclear holocaust.”

In the summer of ’82, shortly after the release of The Atomic Café, it was announced that Reagan’s administration was developing plans that would enable the United States to emerge victorious and glorious from a nuclear war.

Reagan would even mention the possibility of a Soviet nuclear attack, and to promote the buildup of nuclear arms here in the U.S., Reagan asserted that the Soviets had achieved superiority over the U.S. in nuclear weaponry.

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Reagan wanted to be able to inflict unacceptable damage on the Soviet Union even after absorbing an all-out Soviet surprise attack, and so in the 1980s he added a second “counterforce” mission, which required the capacity to launch a nuclear first strike against Soviet strategic nuclear forces that would leave the Soviets unable to inflict unacceptable damage on the U.S. in retaliation.

The American populace, as you might expect, believed that “fear of nuclear war” was the most important issue facing the country.

Nearly 70% of the American people expressed concerns that the country would not survive a nuclear holocaust, the highest percentage since Gallup had undertaken this polling.

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A few years ago, in 2015, a declassified top-secret government document revealed the Soviet Union was bracing itself for nuclear war with the U.S. in 1983 and relations between the two nations were “on a hair trigger.”

It wasn’t until Reagan’s second term that he seemed to come to a clearer understanding of the implications of nuclear war (the risk of nuclear war was reduced considerably after 1986, thanks to both Reagan and, especially, to the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev).

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Soviet officials thought the United States was going to launch a surprise nuclear attack against the USSR in the midst of Ronald Reagan’s (seen speaking in 1981) presidency in 1983 – photo by Bettmann/CORBIS

Recently, the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Kim Jong-un’s state-owned news agency KCNA warned of a nuclear attack on the United States at any sign of a U.S. preemptive strike as a U.S. Navy strike group led by a nuclear-powered aircraft was reportedly (or not?) steaming towards them in the western Pacific.

Vice marshall Choe Ryong Hae –- who is a close aide to Kim –- then warned the world, “If the United States wages reckless provocation against us, our revolutionary power will instantly counter with annihilating strike, and we will respond to all-out war with all-out war and to nuclear war with our style of nuclear strike warfare.”

Hopefully President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un will deescalate their radioactive rhetoric towards each other and find a way to avoid getting into an all-out nuclear war with eachother since, uh, we’d all lose in that war.

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The Atomic Café project originally began with Pierce Rafferty, in fact, after he’d found a catalog of thousands of films made by the U.S. government, and originally he and his collaborators initially planned to make a film about propaganda.

Instead, they narrowed their focus to concentrate on films about the birth of the atomic age, at a time when the American government needed to both develop support for its own nuclear tests and allay fears that such weapons would inevitably lead to Armageddon.

Pierce’s brother Kevin, by the way, was later befriended by a young filmmaker from Michigan, Michael Moore, who was seeking advice on how to make his first film, Roger & Me. Rafferty ended up becoming the cinematographer on Moore’s debut film and acting as a filmmaking mentor to Moore.

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The Atomic Café was assembled from a variety of different sources of archival footage, most of it dating back to the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s, a panoramic montage of newsreel clips, television news footage, TV commercials and service advertisements, TV and radio programs, and, especially poignant 1940s and ’50s-era U.S. government-issued propaganda films and public service announcements of various types, all of it edited to a rollickin’ radioactive soundtrack that featured atomic-themed songs from the Cold War era.

These propaganda films — about 75% of the film is made up of government materials that were in the public domain — were considered an important tool for governments to inform the general public into believing something they wanted them to believe, true or not.

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In the excerpts from military training films — which were primarily and originally intended to be educational and instructional in nature — beginning with the missions that dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII, then continuing as we see atomic devices being testing (like the ones exploded on islands in the Bikini Atoll, where natives were told that the U.S. government wanted to turn this new destructive force into something constructive).

In one scene, we watch American soldiers witnessing atom bomb tests, watching as mushroom clouds explode in the far-off distance, beginning with the Trinity test in 1945.

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Scientists preparing the first A-bomb, nicknamed “The Gadget,” before the Trinity Test

“Viewed from a safe distance,” one chaplain says, “the atomic bomb is one of the most beautiful sights ever seen by man.” And remember, at the time, President Truman considered the atomic bomb a gift from God.

They’ve been told by their commanders that, if they hide in trenches, they will be safe, or, that they needn’t worry about radiation, since they would likely be killed outright in any atomic bomb explosions anyway.

Think about that for a sec: the U.S. government was actually presenting some of this nonsense as fact-based, helpful information on how to survive being annihilated.

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One of the movies excerpted in the documentary is Fighting Words, a 1951 military training film about propaganda, featuring the great character actor James Gregory (unknown and already forty years old at the time) in an uncredited role.

As the Cold War began to escalate and the Soviets develops nuclear weapons of their own, fear began to spread about a potential third World War that would be fought with such weapons.

As the conflict in North Korea grew, for instance, officials like Senator Lloyd Bensen came out in favor of using nuclear weapons against the Chinese. An army training film we see in the film even makes fun of anti-war protesters who claim that Communist countries don’t want to go to war.

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Some of these propaganda films were meant, of course, to shape public opinion among the citizenry, and initially some were made to reassure Americans that the atomic bomb was not a threat to their safety, that all they really had to do, should winds change and blow radiation towards them after a bomb was exploded, was to stay indoors for an hour.

In one scene, a spokesman from Columbia University counters a government statement by saying that people more than twelve miles from the center of a blast will be safe by noting that the firestorm would cover 2000 square miles, incinerating anyone in a fallout shelter in that area.

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Fallout shelters, in the 1950s and early 1960s, seemed like a logical way to protect the family. In 1961, this Los Angeles swimming pool company neutralized their fear-filled invitation with lovely swimsuit-clad hostesses.

Some were clips obviously were intended to be humorous, like the cartoon Duck and Cover (1951), which featured a character named “Bert the Turtle” who offered helpful instructions to children on how to “duck” under tables, and “cover” themselves with a jacket or something, even their interlocked fingers, to avoid being harmed if a nuclear bomb should happen to explode nearby.

(Your humble author can remember actually having to do the duck ‘n’ cover routine occasionally in elementary school, during the early to mid-1960s, crawling beneath my desk and covering up my head).

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Most of the humor in The Atomic Café, however, was ironic, what we’d now call black comedy, much like great 1964 Stanley Kubrick movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, approached the same topic.

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The film featured no narrator or interviews, and just let the material speak for itself.

Jayne Loader has referred to The Atomic Café as “compilation vérité”: a compilation film with no “Voice of God” narration and no new footage added by the filmmakers, nothing new to correct the original, misleading or flat-out wrongheaded statements or ideas that had been made decades earlier.

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The Atomic Café — which has since been called a “nuclear Reefer Madness — was released on March 17, 1982 in New York City, during the peak of the so-called “No Nukes” era, which was in response to president Ronald Reagan’s surreal handling of the nuclear arms race.

It was also screened at the London Film Festival and nominated for a BAFTA award.

In August 1982, a tie-in companion book of the same name, written by Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader and Pierce Rafferty was released by Bantam Books.

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It was screened all across the country (many of its screenings were on college campuses), and it quickly achieved a kind of cult status, considering that the 1980s in America might have been a period when cynicism and a love for nostalgia were more co-existent than ever; this was a few years before it was released as a VHS rental tape, or even aired on programs like “Night Flight.”

As we mentioned above, The Atomic Café was a huge inspiration for the creation of Night Flight’s own “Atomic TV” segments, which featured a number of Cold War shorts similar to the clips seen in the documentary, interspersed with war cartoons, propaganda film excerpts, nuclear blast explosions and music videos which had some kind of “atomic” theme.

Here’s a clip of the first seven minutes of one of our “Atomic TV” segments from 1986, to give you an idea:

You’ll note that Donald Fagan’s “New Frontier’ video was featured here, an innovative little short produced by Annabel Jankel for Cucumber Studios and directed by Rocky Morton. The video continues the song’s concept of a teenage romantic evening in a bomb shelter, mixing animation and live-action footage.

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In December 2016, the National Film Registry added The Atomic Café to their list of films, bringing the list to 700 titles that are being preserved under the National Film Preservation Act. Movies are eligible to join the registry if they are at least 10 years old and deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

This year, we may end up getting into a nuclear war with North Korea, so you might want to check out The Atomic Café — a Night Flight fave — while you still can.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.