by Michael Liss
Will you know what to do when the atomic bomb drops? This question, and others like it, are vividly on display in the 4K restoration of Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, and Pierce Rafferty’s 1982 documentary, The Atomic Café. Having seen the movie when it was first released (my kids’ reaction to this information was “of course you did”) I was determined to return to my roots. But, this being 2018, I took full advantage of technologies not available in the Neolithic Age: I quickly went online and bought two tickets for a night when the filmmakers themselves would be there for a Q&A. Then I fired off a few text messages to friendly liberals of a similar vintage to see who else was going, because you really don’t go to one of these things without a posse.
I was not to be disappointed. Six of us converged on the newly renovated, but still decidedly funky Film Forum. First, my 26-year old son, who spared me the dubious honor of being the only person in the audience in a suit, white shirt, and dark tie (we looked like refugees from a Book of Mormon casting call). Then four of the like-minded, three of whom could be described as gracefully aging hipsters (wearing, respectively, a pair of gray braids, a great-looking gray Van Dyke, and a graying inside out T-shirt) and finally, my pal (and liberal conscience) Melinda.
I could write books about Melinda, and I should, because there aren’t enough Melindas in the world. She’s a Yellow Dog Texas Democrat who brought with her to New York an indestructible accent, an odd affinity for driving minivans as basic transportation in a car-unfriendly city, and an inexhaustible capacity for good works. If there was a protest anywhere, Melinda knew about it, probably organized it, and occasionally got arrested for it. There are still places that are off-limits to her, for a variety of Deep State-ish reasons. Greenwich Village, of course, is not one of them. Melinda is the genuine article.
But I digress. The movie is the thing you came to see, and the movie is what you should get.
It opens with the first A-bomb tests in the New Mexico desert, and, with those blasts, you notice something different: No narration. The filmmakers spent five years reviewing material at the National Archives, and one of the very smart choices they made was to let the original footage speak for itself. This isn’t some Comedy Central mashup. It’s a serious film that trusts itself.
Next, the Enola Gay flies unopposed over Hiroshima, “Little Boy” drops, and the unimaginable occurs. Paul Tibbets, the captain and leader of the mission appears on screen, speaking directly into the camera. Tibbets is calm and authoritative, and the use of him, and his presence, so early, helps to frame one of the central moral ambiguities about the dawning of the Atomic Age: Are there circumstances in which the use of nuclear weapons is morally acceptable?
This is a more complex question than it appears at first, and the answer isn’t forced on you. To Tibbetts, it’s a clear yes, and, as uncomfortable as that may make many feel now, he was voicing the prevailing opinion of the time. My father, drafted in 1944 and deployed to the Philippines, was unquestionably a life-long liberal, and an early and vocal opponent of Vietnam. But when it came to Hiroshima, he really didn’t have doubts. The Japanese were extraordinarily stubborn and courageous fighters, and he saw the first bomb as an awful, but justified alternative to a D-Day-like invasion of the mainland. He did question the second strike, at Nagasaki: having demonstrated the power of what Emperor Hirohito called “a new and most cruel bomb,” couldn’t we have waited a bit longer than three days for Japan to surrender? But I never heard him waver on Hiroshima, even several decades afterwards, when the full impact of all of the consequences of the bomb became clear.
Reasonable people might disagree with Tibbets and Dad, and it’s more than likely that the filmmakers do, but I think it’s a sign of their sophistication and discipline that the movie doesn’t dwell on it. The heart of The Atomic Café is what happens after the genie is let out of the bottle: the jaw-dropping efforts by our government to shape public opinion through a staged combination of Doomsday and Pollyanna.
Americans in the 1950s and 60s believed, simultaneously, in three somewhat conflicting things: The first was that we were the most powerful country in the world, all the more so because we had this absolutely wonderful nuclear arsenal. The second was that we were in mortal danger from the Communists, who were trying to undermine us from within, while planning for our mass destruction from without. And the third was that, while the danger was real, proper preparation would save most of us, so, preparation was both prudent and patriotic.
The Atomic Café takes us back to the first years of living under the threat of mass annihilation. A lot of it looks like it could have been written for an early version of The Onion, so absurd is the footage to modern eyes. There are cartoons, portentous voice-overs, silly songs, school kids “ducking and covering,” and Moms in pearls making themselves comfortable in fallout shelters. Add an exceptionally humorless and unappealing American Communist woman (in shawl and tortoiseshell glasses!) gesticulating wildly, an absolutely excruciating clip of two girls who look like they belonged at a 4-H meeting describing the canned goods they’ve set aside in case of attack, and a variety of politicians making bat-shit crazy statements, more than a few of whom should have known better (Lloyd Bentsen, looking at you here). There’s even Hugh Beaumont (Beaver Cleaver’s Dad) projecting manly, but comforting confidence.
What is fairly clear is that the policy-makers in Washington didn’t have much different a strategy then that of the fictional General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove—a nuclear war was bad, but winnable. “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.” All provided, of course, that we had the will to prepare. “Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap!”
But this isn’t fiction, and the unreality of what unspools in front of you (a family at a picnic seeing the blast, and then covering themselves with a sheet?) leads you back to a very contemporary feeling: Government sees the public as something to be manipulated, not as something to be served.
I don’t think there’s a more stunning example of this than a bit of footage that had stayed with me since I first saw the movie in 1982—American troops, seen in a training exercise, first sitting in trenches, waiting for a small tactical nuclear weapon to be exploded. A Chaplain comforts them by saying it would be ”one of the most beautiful sights ever seen by man.” The soldiers are all given little badges to wear to register their exposure to radiation—it should be safe, they are reassured, but if it’s too much, well, they might die, but don’t worry about it. Several are interviewed as they calmly discuss what’s about to happen. Then, detonation, the men emerge, and march straight into the mushroom cloud.
One of the most striking aspects of seeing the movie again, 36 years later, is that, even though I remembered it almost frame by frame, my emotional reaction was significantly different. It turned out that experience was common to the room. In the Q&A afterwards with the filmmakers, it was clear that much of the audience was like me—former duck-and-cover kids who roared the first time, but were now laughing nervously, if they were laughing at all. My friends felt the same way, and my son, not generally given to overstatement, called the movie “terrifying.”
Same film, why the difference? The world has changed. In 1982, the USA, the Soviet Union, and China understood that nuclear war meant mutual assured destruction, and, notwithstanding the rhetoric, none of them wanted it. Strategic arms reduction talks had begun in 1969, during Nixon’s first term, and led to SALT I and SALT II. While most people realized that the agreements merely blunted the arc of nuclear proliferation, at least there was a consensus that we should step back from the abyss. The danger, many thought, came not from the superpowers, but from two newer members of the nuclear club, India and Pakistan, who, for tribal reasons, might not necessarily be rational actors. That was then. Now, we just seem to surrounded by a dangerous entropy and implacable hostility: Not only are there rogue states like North Korea and Iran, but also stateless threats and random kooks, hopped up on a bizarre ideology or just a desire to be destructive. The bomb could drop at any time.
With that as perspective, you again have to acknowledge the skill of Loader and the Raffertys: while the material is old, the movie isn’t in the least bit dated. As you watch, time speeds up and the surreal kaleidoscope tells the story: The Bomb as savior, The Bomb as part of competitive nationalism, The Bomb as described by J. Robert Oppenheimer: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Then, it’s over. The lights come on, and you sit back in your chair and wonder at the cosmic irony of we humans flailing helplessly against the Golem we birthed.
The Atomic Café. It’s worth the trip.