The 1950s were a time of innocence. Most Americans believed in their government and that its agencies told the truth—the days of straight-talking, "give em Hell" Harry Truman "I like Ike." They were days that featured the good life with Americans buying their own little homes, shopping in plentiful grocery stores, feasting on TV dinners, and relaxing at drive-in movies on the weekends.
It was also a time of paranoia. Senator McCarthy got people thinking that Commies were infiltrating the government and American life, and former ally Russia was dropping its Iron Curtain in Europe and poising to take over the world. Hanging over the country was the treat of the Atom bomb (even though the U.S. was the only country that had detonated the deadly devise on another inhabited country).
Re-watching The Atomic Cafe brings back a lot of memories. I watched a few of these military and Civil Defense propaganda films in school in the fifties and remember doing various duck-and-cover drills—a long one with plenty of warning to allow us to escape to the Fall Out shelter in the school basement, a medium warning that allowed us to cower in the hallway, and the short one that had us diving under our desks.
The short one was the most fun, and I was a young cynic even in fourth grade, telling my deskmate (Pam) that I didn't think the drill would do us any good if they dropped the bomb. Of course, I may have learned that from my dad, who told a Fall Out Shelter salesman that we didn't need his product. My dad was a chemist and explained that our basement would work as a temporary shelter without spending hundreds of dollars on a shelter that wouldn't do any good in an irradiated world that wouldn't be suitable for any habitation. So not everyone alive in the fifties was a dupe to the government propaganda.
Most are aware that the Beat writers were adamantly opposed to the Atom bomb and the mainstream thinking of the time, but there were also a few other quiet cynics scattered in the population, lest you think that everyone in the fifties were complete boobs.
The Atomic Cafe captures the Atomic Age and the resulting Cold War better than any documentary out there—it splices together an incredible array of military training films, civil defense films, archive footage, newsreel material, interviews, slices of pop culture, and fifties music. Many sequences are edited to show the most ridiculous side of the duck-and-cover drills and how naive the military brass was (including how transparent their propaganda efforts were). The military training films are so amateurishly acted that it's no wonder the U.S. would love to see these films disappear forever. Especially bad is one where a chaplain reads a dialogue about the beauty of the H-bomb with a comical sounding monotone, and another film designed to show how the Communists are subversively working among the U.S. citizens who campaign for peace.
A subsequent documentary snippet shows dozens of trained soldiers incredulously walking towards the immediate aftermath of an experimental H-bomb explosion without any radiation concerns, and a military trainer hilariously declares: "Finally, if you receive enough gamma radiation to cause sterility or severe sickness, you'll be killed by blast, flying debris, or heat anyway." Huh? Come again? I had to rewind this sequence a few times to make sure I heard his quote accurately, and the puzzled look on two of the instructor's trainees is priceless!
Also surreal are images of the various atomic bomb tests, from the July 1945 Trinity Project near Alamogordo, New Mexico that will later inspire the science fiction film Them! to the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific where natives willingly vacate the island and sing "You Are My Sunshine" as their former home gets obliterated. Unwittingly the winds shift and "once safe" natives have to be treated for radiation sickness.
The chilling deadpan narrative of Paul Tibbets (who piloted the Enola Gay) describes the routine Hiroshima mission—vacating his pilot's seat to join his men for coffee and explain how they are going to drop the bomb on their military target. He emotionlessly describes what a beautiful calm day it was as the clouds opened up over Hiroshima to allow them to deliver their deadly package without resistance. The film graphically shows the massive atomic cloud and silently surveys the damage afterwards.
No doubt that many conservatives who stand firmly behind the U.S. government and support the military strongly will absolutely hate this documentary for its political slant. Even though there is no outside narration to clearly identify the directors' point of view, the juxtaposed images and selection of some of the most ridiculous and inept military training films lets the audience know where the filmmakers stand—and they are not in lock step with Jack Webb's dead pan ominous Red Nightmare narration that painted the horror of Communism taking over the U.S.
Label this documentary as propaganda if you will, the U.S. government already had its shot at creating a social milieu back in the 1950s until facts about the atomic bomb, radiation sickness, and Communism became more widespread in the 1960s. Can the filmmakers be faulted that the government created such a widespread and heavy-handed propaganda campaign that left ample footage to create The Atomic Cafe? If you have just a few minutes, check out the closing montage for unintended comedy that the modern U.S. military would like to forget.