The Atomic Café: The Cult Classic Documentary Made Entirely Out of Nuclear Weapons Propaganda from the Cold War (1982)

Some assume that the term “nuclear fam­i­ly” refers to the Amer­i­can house­hold as con­ceived of in the 1950s: a work­ing father, stay-at-home moth­er, and 2.3 kids under one sub­ur­ban roof. This is a mis­con­cep­tion — “nuclear” sim­ply implies an exclu­sion of extend­ed fam­i­ly mem­bers — but nev­er­the­less an evoca­tive one. For in Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture, the zenith of that fam­i­ly arrange­ment coin­cid­ed with the zenith of nuclear weapon­ry. Nukes, one heard, that had won the war, at least against Japan, and nukes that would thence­forth secure the free world against the Red Men­ace.

Instill­ing this per­cep­tion required the pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion of no small amount of pro­pa­gan­da, espe­cial­ly in the Cold War. It is out of just such pro­pa­gan­da, drawn from news­reels, tele­vi­sion broad­casts, and oth­er forms of media, that Kevin Raf­fer­ty, Pierce Raf­fer­ty, and Jayne Loader made their acclaimed doc­u­men­tary The Atom­ic Café.

It came out in 1982, when the pub­lic’s assump­tions of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary benev­o­lence — and its patience with the coun­try’s seem­ing­ly per­ma­nent arms race against the Sovi­et Union — were run­ning low. These decades-old clips of stren­u­ous­ly pious politi­cians, drawl­ing bomber pilots, ram­bling Bab­bitts, and civ­il defense-ready nuclear (in both sens­es) fam­i­lies could hard­ly have met with more intense cyn­i­cism.

“I was an exact con­tem­po­rary of those kids in this old doc­u­men­tary footage,” writes Roger Ebert in his review The Atom­ic Café. “Life mag­a­zine ran blue­prints for fall­out shel­ters, and Estes Kefau­ver barn­stormed the nation with warn­ings about stron­tium 90 in the milk sup­ply.” In one scene “girls in home ec class­es dis­play their canned goods designed for nuclear sur­vival, and it is clear from their faces that they have no clue of how they would sur­vive nuclear war, and lit­tle hope of doing so.” The film as a whole evokes a time when the Unit­ed States “spent a good deal of its resources on address­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of nuclear war, how­ev­er use­less­ly.” We no longer hear much about that pos­si­bil­i­ty, per­haps because it has gen­uine­ly dimin­ished, or per­haps because — as view­ers of The Atom­ic Café will sus­pect even today — the pro­pa­gan­dists are busy con­vinc­ing us of some­thing else entire­ly.

The Atom­ic Café has been put on YouTube by the New York film dis­tri­b­u­tion com­pa­ny Kino Lor­ber.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How a Clean, Tidy Home Can Help You Sur­vive the Atom­ic Bomb: A Cold War Film from 1954

U.S. Det­o­nates Nuclear Weapons in Space; Peo­ple Watch Spec­ta­cle Sip­ping Drinks on Rooftops (1962)

Pro­tect and Sur­vive: 1970s British Instruc­tion­al Films on How to Live Through a Nuclear Attack

Watch Chill­ing Footage of the Hiroshi­ma & Nagasa­ki Bomb­ings in Restored Col­or

See Every Nuclear Explo­sion in His­to­ry: 2153 Blasts from 1945–2015

J. Robert Oppen­heimer Explains How He Recit­ed a Line from Bha­gavad Gita — “Now I Am Become Death, the Destroy­er of Worlds — Upon Wit­ness­ing the First Nuclear Explo­sion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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