The Atomic Cafe (1982)

The Archive Project

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Documentary Description

The Atomic Cafe is an acclaimed documentary film about the beginnings of the era of nuclear warfare, created from a broad range of archival film from the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s - including newsreel clips, television news footage, U.S. government-produced films (including military training films), advertisements, television and radio programs. News footage reflected the prevailing understandings of the media and public.

The film was produced over a five-year period through the collaborative efforts of three directors: Jayne Loader, and brothers Kevin and Pierce Rafferty. For this film, the Rafferty brothers and Loader formed the production company "Archives Project Inc." The filmmakers opted to not use narration, and instead they deployed carefully constructed sequences of film clips to make their points. Jayne Loader has referred to The Atomic Cafe as a compilation verite, meaning that it is a compilation film with no Voice of God narration and no new footage added by the filmmakers. The soundtrack utilizes atomic-themed songs from the Cold War era to underscore the themes of the film.

Though the topic of atomic holocaust is a grave matter, the film approaches it with black humor. Much of the humor derives from the modern audience's reaction to the old training films, such as the Duck and Cover film shown in schools.

The film was released in April 1982. Its release coincided with a peak in the international disarmament movement, and the film received much wider distribution than was the norm for politically-oriented documentaries. It rapidly became a cult classic, and greatly influenced documentary filmmaking.

One of the filmmakers, Kevin Rafferty, was later befriended by a young Michael Moore who was seeking advice on how to make his first film Roger & Me. Rafferty ended up becoming the cinematographer on the film and acting as a filmmaking mentor to Moore - who has acknowledged the influence on his own filmmaking.

The UK premiere screening in the British House Of Commons in October 1982 tied the film to then ongoing debate in the UK about the deployment of the cruise missile against the Soviet threat. The film was also screened at the London Film Festival and nominated for a BAFTA award. The film was released on home video in the UK in 1983 by Virgin Video (VVA 028).

A CD-ROM companion to The Atomic Cafe with many of the clips and other materials from the film is available online. An illustrated book based on the film was published by Ballantine Books shortly after the film's release, and a soundtrack album was issued by Rounder Records.

Source: Wikipedia

The Atomic Cafe is a sometimes hilarious, sometimes sobering collection of film clips taken from American propaganda films of the 1950s. The thrust of the production is to expose the misinformation (and downright lies) dispensed by the government concerning the atomic bomb. We are shown vignettes from such classic instructional films as Duck and Cover, wherein school children are assured that they will survive a nuclear attack simply by huddling together next to the schoolhouse wall. In another sequence, a pack of pigs are dressed in Army uniforms and left to die at "Ground Zero" during a nuclear test to see if human beings (who purportedly have the same skin consistency as pigs) could endure such an ordeal. Fascinating though it is, Atomic Cafe makes its basic point early in the proceedings, then tends to repeat that point over and over rather than expand upon it.


A documentary satire of the early atomic era edited together from newsreel and Civil Defense training films. A contemporaneous soundtrack of bizarre country and blues songs celebrating the Bomb compliments the ingeniously assembled footage. ATOMIC CAFE achieves a level of sublime comedy that compels repeated viewing.



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