The Atomic Cafe: Lampooning America’s Nuclear Obsession
What vintage bomb survival suits have to do with Dr. Stragelove and Richard Nixon.
By Maria Popova
The recent tragedy in Japan has triggered a tsunami of terror, founded and unfounded, about the potential risks of nuclear reactors. While there are people better equipped than us to explain the precise implications of the situation, we thought we’d put things in perspective by examining the flipside of these dystopian fears: The exuberant optimism about nuclear power in mid-century America.
The Atomic Cafe (1982) offers clever satire of America’s atomic culture through a mashup of old newsreels and archival footage from military training films, government propaganda, presidential speeches and pop songs — remix culture long before it became a buzzword. From congressmen pushing for nuclear attacks on China to mind-boggling inventions like the “bomb survival suit,” the darkly humorous film revolves around the newly built atomic bomb and pokes fun at the false optimism of the 1950s, showing how nuclear warfare made its way into American homes and seeped into the collective conscience from the inside out.
Though the collector’s edition DVD is a winner, the film — which became a cult classic often referred to as the “nuclear Reefer Madness” and compared to Kubrick’s Dr. Stragelove — is also available for free online in its entirety:
The Atomic Cafe is a poignant reminder that all social reactions, whatever their polarity, are always a complex function of the era’s cultural concerns, political propaganda and media mongering, rather than an accurate reflection of the actual risks and opportunities at hand.
Please note that none of this is meant as commentary on or an effort to invalidate the debilitating human tragedy in Japan. In fact, we’re diverting Brain Pickings donations this month to the American Red Cross in support of the relief efforts there. Our thoughts remain with the people of Japan as they piece their lives back together.
Published March 24, 2011