The Atomic Cafe is a 1982 documentary directed by Jayne Loader and Kevin Rafferty. It consists entirely of U.S. Government footage of nuclear weapons tests, government propaganda, and Civil Defense films, and unlike most documentaries, runs a full 92 minutes without a single word of commentary. The way the Civil Defense nuclear survival strategy of "Duck and Cover" is juxtaposed with films of the destruction wrought by actual nuclear detonations provides all the commentary that is necessary. It also features a cameo by then-president Ronald Reagan, hawking the bomb to the public. The movie makes the kind of impact that the makers of The Day After shot for but missed. The net effect is hilarious, surreal and chilling at the same time, and, if we all hadn't experienced the madness first hand, would seem pretty unbelievable.

The Atomic Cafe may not have narration, but it certainly doesn't lack commentary. The film shows its makers' views in its meticulously planned footage sequences that combine terrible radiation burns with official statements that there were no such things, juxtapose illusions/delusions with stark reality and make clear the absurdity of nuclear weapons that turned Dr. Strangelove from a drama into a satire. The medium becomes the message. This approach has drawn both wild praise ("Atomic Cafe reaches the level of poetry" - Fred Glass) and some marvellous slams ("The film reeks of the smugness of film brats trying to be smart about the past" - I.C. Jarvie; "There is nothing to temper the final impact of decadent cynicism" - Boyle D.) Certainly it's worth keeping in mind that you're getting the picture the film-makers want you to, essentially being told what to feel.

It's an odd work, one I'd recommend for those interested in history, propaganda, weird movie tricks or, like me, apparently everything.

One scene in particular left a deep impression in me: US soldiers inexplicably close to an above-ground nuclear test duck in trenches to ride out the blast wave, then against all reason and forcing me to suppress an urge to shout out and warn them, get out and start walking towards the expanding mushroom cloud. The entire pointlessness and lunacy suddenly becomes so plain it's hard to believe the sight, though while this is somewhat tangential from the hilarious stupidity of Man there's another reason. I've seen atomic explosions intermittingly through my whole life, but always as giants among giants, poking out of clouds or vaporizing fictional metropolises. This may be different for someone living in a country with mountains, but as the film showed ordinary folks five to six feet tall against a mushroom cloud, it suddenly registered how ridiculously out of scale it was, and with a holy green camel-eating frog of Egypt that thing's HUGE! my already shocked self was left incapable of even thinking of a better expletive.

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