Trump’s EPA recently moved to weaken rules that may affect how radiation exposure is regulated. In a news release, the EPA quoted a University of Massachusetts scientist who has stated that a little radiation is healthful. This may sound outlandish. But as the classic collage documentary The Atomic Cafe reveals, US military and civilian authorities long belittled reasonable fears about radiation, particularly in the two decades after World War II, where such concerns would have interfered with the rush to test ever more powerful nuclear weapons. Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, and Pierce Rafferty’s cine-essay splices newsreels, US army training films, and educational clips that show the government’s efforts to give the public an illusion of control over the most terrifying force ever developed. By implication, it’s a narrative of a nation moving from jingoistic dominant-country pride to Cold War dread; a collective psyche whose only defense, like a picnic blanket thrown over the head of a duck-and-coverer, is a weave of patriotic-religious bluster and morbid humor.
The Atomic Cafe provokes a surprising number of laughs, from a soundtrack of awe-inspiringly tasteless ‘50s pop songs (“Well, the bomb went off and I was caught / I was the only man on the ground / There was a-thirteen women and only one man in town”) to its extracts of horribly acted army films warning of Commies on the home front. Bert the cartoon turtle demonstrates how to hide from a nuclear blast, symbolized by a monkey with a stick of dynamite. A sexy lady in a fur hat twirls and poses in front of a military rocket. A culture warps under the pressures of state-mandated calm, turning its possible doom into a fetish or a joke.
That such a strange outlook was a reaction to governmental gaslighting seems impossible to deny. Clip after clip ridicules the average soldier or civilization for suffering from “nuclearosis,” a mocking term for the thrall of terror at the thought of the bomb, or for worrying whether radiation sickness will cause hair loss (“The treatment, if you’d insist, would be symptomatic—a toupee!”), or for considering the risk of agonizing death from radiation any worse than the hazards of everyday life, like slipping on a bar of soap.
But The Atomic Cafe wordlessly validates the underlying fear and guilt with footage of the Bomb’s victims: scorched and poisoned bodies in Hiroshima, radiation-burnt Pacific Islanders near the test sites. The safety of even American soldiers appears to have been an afterthought. In one astonishing sequence shot in the American desert, a company of men with no special protective gear crouch in trenches as a mushroom cloud hurtles skyward in the distance, then climb up and run toward the towering column of smoke. They aren’t even equipped with sunglasses.
Most of all, the footage of the explosions—never less bloodcurdling no matter how often you’ve seen them—exposes the futility of this flood of government misinformation. In one inspired bit of editing, a series of annihilating blasts is followed by skit with a father figure in a fallout-shelter solemnly addressing his children: “All in all, I’d say we’ve been pretty lucky around here. Nothing to do now but wait for the authorities and relax.” The Atomic Cafe leaves them in this nervous limbo, in the clutch of a government that knows too little and reassures far too much.