Straddling the fence between surrealism and pop culture is this eccentric "mockumentary," subsumed entirely by stock footage from the height of the Cold War. "The Atomic Café" is pieced together with a certain clairvoyant vision that captivates and inspires as the seamless fluency of the film builds to a denouement. In the same neighborhood as "Dr. Strangelove," this cynically festive mock-serious piece of cinema communicates lucid social commentary concerning the imminent threat of nuclear holocaust, a gloomy forecast defined by the "mutually assured destruction" philosophy that saturated over three decades.
Both witty and horrifying, "The Atomic Café" is a callous blend of drama and satire that takes itself seriously even when its audience cannot. Because the documentary is just that, fashioned entirely out of a seamless montage of newsreel footage, government archives, and military training films, the movie itself is just a deadpan reflection of history's charade executed with an assertive wry humor that makes us question the sanity of Cold War politics.
Peppered with asinine propaganda, from the "Duck, and Cover" cartoons, to discrediting the perils of radiation sickness: "Your hair will return. And thicker and more vibrant than before," "The Atomic Café" unapologetically mirrors the lighthearted, idyllic atmosphere of a world that could end at any second. In an Army information clip, an unprocessed wave of recruits is informed, "When not close enough to be killed, the atomic bomb is one of the most beautiful sights in the world."
Without becoming preachy, the documentary captures the hysteria of the dog-eat-dog mentality of the post-World War climate. Skewering such political icons as the Commander of the Bikini Test to President Harry Truman and Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, we get a vituperative taste of the medicine that the American public was being force-fed, the government pinching our noses closed as we remained blissfully ignorant of the very real apocalypse. We are treated to a cross-section of the modus operandi of the Cold War decades as the diplomatic puppeteers suspend their countless marionette puppets over the tar pits of their demise, behind Churchill's idiomatic "Iron-Curtain", consciously aware that schoolchildren cowering under their desks would be vaporized, and that a fallout shelter would asphyxiate those using its airtight walls for protection.
Especially inventive and insightful to those like myself who were born only years before the fall of the Berlin Wall – as a frame of reference – and have no firsthand experience of the time period, this film still manages to flaunt nostalgia. To quote a newsreel comment from the film, "Never have so many known so little about something so important." The movie even paints a graphic portrait of our belligerent foreign policy as we witness human shadows scorched into the cobblestone streets of Hiroshima, and the jingoistic attitude of General Douglas Macarthur as a Japanese civilian peels off her skin while trying to remove her Kimono.
It also alludes to other infamous pieces of cinema used as propaganda, beheading Don Siegel for his anti-Red evangelism illustrated though his " Invasion of The Body Snatchers." Some of the unscripted dialogue bears repeating: the Director of Civil Defense announces over the radio, "Be sure to include tranquilizers to ease the strain and monotony of life in a fallout shelter. A bottle of one hundred should be sufficient for a family of four. Tranquilizers are not a narcotic, and are not habit-forming." This hour-and-a-half film flies beneath the radar, while it should harbor the same cult status that "Dr. Strangelove" entertains.