By editing together — without comment apart from the music and the juxtaposition of the clips — vintage newsreels, public service films, army training films, instructional films and TV footage, the makers of The Atomic Cafe (1982) crafted one of the most trenchant, bitter and horrific looks at the “atomic” and Cold War era. It’s probably even more disturbing if you lived through any part of the Cold War (I mean the real one, not the revived one). But what’s most disturbing is the tendency viewers have to feel superior to the shameless propaganda and outright lies we were being fed. It seems so quaint and so transparent, but if you ask yourself honestly how different things are now, the answer is apt to be troubling.
There’s no denying that the film has been edited for maximum impact. That’s, in fact, the whole point, since the whole movie is made from existing footage. But whether or not this presents an “unfair” picture — as has been claimed — is another issue altogether. I’m inclined to say no, based on my own memories of the early 1960s and the civil defense films and drills — not to mention the tour of a fallout shelter that we weren’t slated to use. I’d also say that the filmmakers are free to craft any picture they choose. It’s their distillation of the era, after all. Moreover, there are instances — the same footage of an Asian man looking skyward just before the bomb drops on Hiroshima appears again just before a fictional bomb is dropped on the U.S. — where the whole point is made by the obviousness of the editing.
The important thing, I think, is to see the film and decide for yourself. Remember that this was not a media-savvy era. Alternate news sources weren’t readily available and people still tended to believe they were being told the truth — no matter how sketchy what they were being told might be, largely because there was no easy way of checking it out. More worth considering is the fact that a lot of what you see in the film was being shown to school kids, who by their very nature and age tend to be pretty credulous. If your teacher told you something — even by presenting a film — the natural thing was to assume it was the goods. Why would you believe otherwise?