Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Atomic Cafe: A Review


There's nothing as delightfully campy as nuclear annihilation. The Atomic Café is held by some to be almost a black comedy in the style of Dr. Strangelove, except that the former is built around documentary and government films meant to inform/reassure the public about the nuclear threat.  I didn't find much if any humor in The Atomic Café, but I did find it a fascinating time capsule about the times the various footage was made. 

Using no narration and footage ranging from Army training films to newsreels of various politicians of the era from President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Vice President, Richard Nixon to Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and Representative (and eventually Texas Senator and almost-Vice President Lloyd Bentsen), The Atomic Café shows us both films that were meant to instruct the public about what to do in case the Commies dropped the bomb (the now-infamous "Duck and Cover") to the aftereffects of nuclear weapons on both the Japanese and those on the various atolls (anachronistically referred to as 'natives'). 

We're treated to all sorts of curious if not downright oddball moments: teenagers showing what foodstuffs they have in their bomb shelters, children decked out in full radiation gear on which they can ride their bicycles, a smiling and laughing President Harry S. Truman moments before somberly announcing the dropping of the first bomb on Hiroshima.

We also get tidbits about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the notorious couple executed for espionage against the United States to our nemesis the Soviet Union, the 'Kitchen Debate' between Vice President Nixon and Soviet head Nikita Khrushchev, and lots of atomic bomb-related songs.

I was at a bit of a loss understanding why The Atomic Café was almost billed as a 'comedy', black or otherwise. I found very little if anything to laugh about.  It might be that unlike today's viewers who see the silliness of 'duck and cover' or may see in the various films admittedly curious moments (such as the description of the atomic bomb as 'a beautiful thing viewed from a safe distance), I put myself in the mindset of those who lived in this time of high anxiety mixed with high affluence.

It is, I think, tempting to consider those who came before us as naïve at best, idiots at worst, people who blindly accepted truths now universally acknowledged (such as the total innocence of the Rosenbergs, which is still highly in doubt).  If The Atomic Café was made to in a sense ridicule those who thought having a bomb shelter pre-built into your home was a good idea, I would offer that we should look at such things in the context of their time.

The lack of true information about the dangers of radiation may have been the government's unwillingness to be up-front with the public, or it may have been a genuine belief in what they wanted to believe, the facts be damned. 

Since I didn't live in the era of the 1950's and early 1960's, it's hard for me to say whether I would have thought the same thing that people of the era.  I would have thought that some of the paranoid people who made it onto The Atomic Café would have been seen by the general public then the way people on Doomsday Preppers are seen today: far too worried and paranoid to really function.

Perhaps it's just my way of looking at the world, but I think most people in the 1950's were not obsessing over 'Reds Under the Beds' or the H-Bomb coming to Omaha.  It would be a concern, but I think most people genuinely went about their lives in the generally economic prosperity of the Eisenhower years.

There is quite interesting, shocking, and yes, amusing information/misinformation in The Atomic Café.  Seeing the Army use pigs in a nuclear test, with the end results of horrifyingly mutilated pigs is jarring.  The effects of the actual nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki also shock amidst the laughter of Bert the Turtle's advise on nuclear survival to children.

The film is also skillfully edited: we see shots of a Japanese man looking up at the sky, then a shot of the Enola Gay on her way to deliver death to Hiroshima.  We can argue that these two shots may not actually connect: I don't think any Japanese cameraman was shooting Hiroshima civilians at the exact same time the Enola Gay was on her way.   Moreover, the same Japanese man is used in a quick shot when we see Americans fearing the bomb.

It does remind me of Triumph of the Will, a master class in editing to make connections that are probably not real but meant to cause a reaction.  Triumph of the Will is flat-out propaganda: brilliant propaganda, but propaganda nonetheless.  Whether you want to lump The Atomic Café into the same category is I think a stretch, but the film was skillfully edited.

I was intrigued by other aspects of The Atomic Café.  Seeing then-Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson say we had to learn to live with 'the enemies of freedom' having the Hydrogen Bomb that threatens various Texas cities (including my hometown of El Paso, which was nice to hear being recognized as a Texas city) was surprising.  It's not often we hear a Senator telling his constituents, 'well, get used to it'.  I was also fascinated by the story of St. George, Utah, which was near an atomic test site and that at least once had to have the citizens under essentially house arrest when the winds blew their way.

It would have been nice to have learned what happened to St. George, Utah, or gotten more context into the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case: to me, they seemed just thrown in there with little suggestion that they were either victims of Cold War paranoia or actual Soviet agents working to make the U.S. all Red with no White or Blue. 

On the whole, however, The Atomic Café is if anything else, that most curious time capsule of a time when the public knew less about nuclear Armageddon, where there was a mix of fear and frolic on the whole subject.  We learn that the man best known for telling his Vice Presidential rival, Senator Dan Quayle, that he was 'no Jack Kennedy' was in favor of dropping the bomb on North Korea.  How history would be different if then Representative Lloyd Bentsen's views were carried out. 

We also learn that people can believe the oddest things, if scared enough.  In that respect, The Atomic Café is not as merry as perhaps others might see it, but it is still a most fascinating portrait of the times from which the footage came from.



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