A time capsule of a time capsule, the 1982 documentary compilation film The Atomic Café is suddenly, enragingly relevant again. There was a time -- during the 1990s particularly -- when Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty and Pierce Rafferty's montage of newsreels, training films and commercials from the early years of the arms race seemed like both a cinematic and spiritual fragment of the past. The cloud of nuclear fear had lifted, or so we thought, with the end of the Cold War. But now the possibility of Armageddon is back in the news, in a more unpredictable fashion than ever before. And so here is The Atomic Café, beautifully restored, back to remind us how fucked we truly are.
Both bitterly funny and heart-stoppingly upsetting, Loader and the Raffertys' assemblage peered into America's nuclear soul from the dawn of the Reagan era. The materials the filmmakers used may have come from the period between 1945 and 1955: footage of bomb tests, clips of presidents and military officials making solemn announcements, helpful public advisories about how to protect yourself from blast radiuses. But they spoke also to the twin poles of American public spirit in the early 1980s — a renewed, turbo-loaded fusion of warlike aggression and paranoia crossed with aw-shucks nostalgia and hazy idealism.
There's no narration and very little onscreen text, just a steady drumbeat of clips and sound bites that portray how nuclear warfare went from a welcome announcement -- the big new bombs that would end World War II -- to an international arms race, an all-consuming aesthetic and a looming spiritual specter.