The Atomic Cafe

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The Atomic Cafe
Theatrical release poster
Directed byKevin Rafferty
Jayne Loader
Pierce Rafferty
Written byKevin Rafferty
Jayne Loader
Pierce Rafferty
Produced byKevin Rafferty
Jayne Loader
Pierce Rafferty
Edited byKevin Rafferty
Jayne Loader
Music byConsultant:
Charles Wolfe
The Archives Project
Distributed byLibra Films
Release date
  • March 17, 1982 (1982-03-17) (New York City)
Running time
86 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1 million[1]

The Atomic Cafe is a 1982 American documentary film directed by Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader and Pierce Rafferty.[2][3][4] It is a compilation of clips from newsreels, military training films, and other footage produced in the United States early in the Cold War on the subject of nuclear warfare. Without any narration, the footage is edited and presented in a manner to demonstrate how misinformation and propaganda was used by the U.S. government and popular culture to ease fears about nuclear weapons among the American public.

In 2016, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."[5]


The film covers the beginnings of the era of nuclear warfare, created from a broad range of archival material from the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s including newsreel clips, television news footage, U.S. government-produced films (including military training films), advertisements, television and radio programs.[6] News footage reflected the prevailing understanding of the media and public.[7] The film covers both the impact of the atomic bomb on popular culture and daily life, as well as documents the military's increasing fascination with carrying out more and more dangerous tests. The film opens with footage of the Trinity Test and concludes with a montage of stock footage simulating a nuclear attack on the United States.

Though the topic of atomic holocaust is a grave matter, much of the humor[8] derives from the modern audience's reaction to old training films, such as the Duck and Cover film shown in schools. Another sequence involves footage of US Army training maneuvers in which soldiers are instructed to walk into a mushroom cloud as part of an exercise to study how efficiently the armed forces could kill the survivors of a nuclear bomb strike if Soviet Soldiers ever made it to US soil; prior to the beginning of the exercise, the soldiers are informed, "Viewed from a safe distance, the atomic bomb is one of the most beautiful sights ever seen by man."

Persons shown[edit]

The following people are shown in excerpts from speeches, interviews and news reports: Lloyd Bentsen, William H. P. Blandy, Owen Brewster, Frank Gallop, Lyndon Johnson, Maurice Joyce, Nikita Khrushchev, Brien McMahon, Seymour Melman, George Molan, Richard Nixon, Val Peterson, George Portell, George Putnam, Ronald Reagan, Ethel Rosenberg, Julius Rosenberg, Mario Salvadori, Lewis Strauss, Paul Tibbets, Harry S. Truman, James E. Van Zandt.

Historical context[edit]

The Atomic Cafe, referred to as a "compilation verite" with no "voice of God narration" or any recently shot footage, was released at the height of nostalgia and cynicism in America. By 1982, Americans lost much of their faith in their government following the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal the previous decade,[9] alongside the seemingly never-ending arms race with the Soviet Union.[10] The Atomic Cafe reflects and reinforces this idea as it exposes how the atomic bomb's dangers were downplayed and how the government used films to shape public opinion.

The Atomic Cafe was also released during the Reagan administration's civil defense revival.[11] Barry Posen and Stephen Van Evera explain this revival in their article "Defense Policy and the Reagan Administration: Departure from Containment" published in International Security. They argue that in 1981–82 the Reagan administration was moving from an essentially defensive grand strategy of containment to a more offensive strategy. Due to the greater demands of its more offensive strategy "the Reagan Administration ... proposed the biggest military buildup since the Korean War."[12] Of key relevance to The Atomic Cafe, the Reagan move toward offense included the adoption of a more aggressive nuclear strategy that required a large U.S. nuclear buildup. Containment only required that U.S. strategic nuclear forces be capable of one mission: inflicting unacceptable damage on the Soviet Union even after absorbing an all-out Soviet surprise attack. To this "assured destruction" mission the Reagan administration added a second "counterforce" mission, which required the capacity to launch a nuclear first strike against Soviet strategic nuclear forces that would leave the Soviets unable to inflict unacceptable damage on the U.S. in retaliation. The U.S. had always invested in counterforce but the Reagan administration put even greater emphasis on it. The counterforce mission was far more demanding than the assured destruction mission, and required a vast expansion of U.S. nuclear forces to fulfill. Civil defense was a component of a counterforce strategy, as it reduced Soviet retaliatory capacity, hence civil defense was a candidate for more spending under Reagan's counterforce nuclear strategy. Posen and Van Evera argue that this counterforce strategy was a warrant for an open-ended U.S. nuclear buildup.

Bob Mielke, in "Rhetoric and Ideology in the Nuclear Test Documentary" (Film Quarterly) discusses the release of The Atomic Cafe: "This satire feature was released at the height of the nuclear freeze movement (which was in turn responding to the Reagan administration's surreal handling of the arms race.)"[13]

In "Atomic Café" (Film Quarterly), Fred Glass points out that the technical and cultural background needed to create the film was not available in 1955. The film's themes, critical of government propaganda and the nuclear arms race, would have been seen as unpatriotic during the McCarthy era. And getting the necessary permits and funding to make Atomic Café can be quite difficult.[14]

Patricia Aufderheide, in Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction touches on the significance of The Atomic Cafe as a window into the past of government propaganda and disinformation during the years following the advent of the atomic bomb.

Propaganda, also known as disinformation, public diplomacy, and strategic communication, continues to be an important tool for governments. But stand-alone documentary is no longer an important part of public relations campaigns aimed at the general public.[15]

It has also been known as a postmodernist film.[16][17]


The Atomic Cafe was produced over a five-year period through the collaborative efforts of three directors: Jayne Loader and brothers Kevin and Pierce Rafferty.[18] For this film, the Rafferty brothers and Loader formed a production company called The Archives Project. The filmmakers opted not to use narration.[19] Instead, they deployed carefully constructed sequences of film clips to make their points. Jayne Loader has referred to The Atomic Cafe as "compilation verite": a compilation film with no "Voice of God" narration and no new footage added by the filmmakers.[20] The soundtrack utilizes atomic-themed songs from the Cold War era to underscore the themes of the film.[21]

The film cost $300,000 to make. The group did receive some financial support from outside sources, including the Film Fund, a New York City based non-profit.[22] Grants comprised a nominal amount of the team's budget, and the film was largely funded by the filmmakers themselves. Jayne Loader stated in an interview, "Had we relied on grants, we would have starved."[23] Pierce Rafferty helped to support the team and the film financially by working as a consultant and researcher on several other documentary films including the Oscar-nominated El Salvador: Another Vietnam, the Oscar-nominated With Babies and Banners, and The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (which also was inducted into the National Film Registry).[24] The Rafferty brothers had also received an inheritance that they used to support the team during the five years it took to make the film.[23] About 75% of the film is made up of government materials that were in the public domain. Though they could use those public domain materials for free, they had to make copies of the films at their own expense. This along with the newsreel and commercial stock footage that comprises the other 25% of the film (along with the music royalties) represents the bulk of the trio's expenditures.[24]


The film was released on March 17, 1982, in New York, New York. In August 1982, a tie-in companion book of the same name, written by Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader and Pierce Rafferty was released by Bantam Books. A 4K digital restoration of the film, created by IndieCollect,[25] premiered at SXSW in 2018.[4]

Home media[edit]

The 20th Anniversary Edition of the film was released in DVD format in Region 1 on March 26, 2002, by Docudrama.[26] A 4K restored version[27][28] was released on Blu-ray on December 4, 2018, by Kino Lorber.[29][30]

In 1995, Jayne Loader's Public Shelter, an educational CD-ROM and website – with clips from The Atomic Cafe, plus additional material from declassified films, audio, photographs, and text files that archive the history, technology, and culture of the Atomic Age – was released by EJL Productions, a company formed by Jayne Loader and her first husband, Eric Schwaab. Though it garnered positive national reviews and awards, the self-distributed Public Shelter CD-ROM sold only 500 copies and failed to find a national publisher.[31] Loader and Schwaab divorced.[32] The website folded in 1999.

Reception and legacy[edit]

Critical response[edit]

When The Atomic Cafe was released, film critic Roger Ebert discussed the style and methods the filmmakers used, writing, "The makers of The Atomic Cafe sifted through thousands of feet of Army films, newsreels, government propaganda films and old television broadcasts to come up with the material in their film, which is presented without any narration, as a record of some of the ways in which the bomb entered American folklore. There are songs, speeches by politicians, and frightening documentary footage of guinea-pig American troops shielding themselves from an atomic blast and then exposing themselves to radiation neither they nor their officers understood."[33] He also reviewed it with Gene Siskel who saw it more as a piece of Americana and a curio.[34]

Critic Vincent Canby of the New York Times praised the film, calling the film "a devastating collage-film that examines official and unofficial United States attitudes toward the atomic age" and a film that "deserves national attention."[21] Canby was so taken by The Atomic Cafe that he mentioned it in a subsequent article – comparing it, favorably, to the 1981 blockbuster Porky's.[35]

Critic Glenn Erickson discussed the editorial message of the film's producers:

The makers of The Atomic Cafe clearly have a message to get across, and to achieve that goal they use the inherent absurdity of their source material in creative ways. But they're careful to make sure they leave them essentially untransformed. When we see Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover posing with a strip of microfilm, we know we're watching a newsreel. The content isn't cheated. Except in wrapup montages, narration from one source isn't used over another. When raw footage is available, candid moments are seen of speechmakers (including President Truman) when they don't know the cameras are rolling. Caught laughing incongruously before a solemn report on an atom threat, Truman comes off as callously flip ...[36]

On Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 93% based on reviews from 29 critics.[37]

Deirdre Boyle, an Associate Professor and Academic Coordinator of the Graduate Certificate in Documentary Media Studies at The New School and an author of Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited, claimed that "By compiling propaganda or fictions denying 'nuclear-truth', The Atomic Cafe reveals the American public's lack of resistance to the fear generated by the government propaganda films and the misinformation they generated. Whether Americans of the time lacked the ability to resist or reject this misinformation about the atomic bomb is a debatable truth."[38]

The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction said it was, in quotes, a "mockumentary" from its editing and called it, "The most powerful satire of the official treatments of the atomic age".[39]


In 2016, The Atomic Cafe was one of the 25 films selected for preservation in the annual United States' National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The press release for the Registry stated that "The influential film compilation 'Atomic Cafe' provocatively documents the post-World War II threat of nuclear war as depicted in a wide assortment of archival footage from the period ..."[5][40]

Controversial documentary filmmaker Michael Moore was inspired by the film that he tweeted: "This is the movie that told me that a documentary about a deadly serious subject could be very funny. Then I asked the people who made it to teach me how to do it. They did. That movie became my first – 'Roger & Me'."[41]




Atomic Cafe: Radioactive Rock 'n Roll, Blues, Country & Gospel
Soundtrack album
GenreSoundtrack, rock and roll, blues, country, gospel
LabelRounder Records
ProducerCharles Wolfe, The Archives Project (Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty and Pierce Rafferty)
Professional ratings
Review scores

Atomic Cafe: Radioactive Rock 'n Roll, Blues, Country & Gospel is the soundtrack to the 1982 film The Atomic Cafe. A vinyl LP record was released in 1982 by Rounder Records. Some of the credits for the record include: co-produced by Charles Wolfe, The Archives Project (Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty and Pierce Rafferty), album cover artwork by Dennis Pohl, cover design by Mel Green, and booklet text by Charles Wolfe.[46]

Track listing[edit]

Side One
No. Title Author(s) Date of recording Length
1 "Atom and Evil" Golden Gate Quartet November 1946 3:25
2 Audio clip Major Thomas Ferebee, Enola Gay bombardier August 15, 1945 0:29 3:32
"When the Atom Bomb Fell" Karl Davis and Harty Taylor December 4, 1945 3:03
3 Audio clip President Harry S. Truman August 9, 1945 0:29 3:42
Audio clip Captain Kermit Beahan, The Great Artiste bombardier August 15, 1945 0:12
"Win the War Blues" Sonny Boy Williamson I[a] December 14, 1944 3:01
4 Audio clip David E. Lilienthal, the first Chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission October 28, 1946 0:22 3:14
"Atomic Power" Buchanan Brothers c. June 1946 2:52
5 Audio clip Winston Churchill March 31, 1949 0:25 3:51
Audio clip[b] News reporter September 23, 1949 0:12
"Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb" Lowell Blanchard and The Valley Trio[c] c. April 1950 3:14
6 Audio clip Rep. James E. Van Zandt (Republican), Penn. May 8, 1953 0:47 3:40
"When They Drop the Atomic Bomb" Jackie Doll and his Pickled Peppers c. March 1951 2:53
7 "Atomic Sermon" Billy Hughes and the Rhythm Buckaroos c. 1953 3:05
8 "Old Man Atom" Sons of the Pioneers c. 1947 3:43
Total length: 28:12
Side Two
No. Title Author(s) Date of recording Length
1 "Uranium" The Commodores[d] c. 1957 2:28
2 "50 Megatons" Sonny Russell c. 1956 2:26
3 "Atom Bomb Baby" The Five Stars[e] c. 1957 2:28
4 "Satellite Baby" Skip Stanley November 1957 2:55
5 "Sputniks and Mutniks" Ray Anderson and the Homefolks c. 1958 2:25
6 "Atomic Cocktail" Slim Gaillard Quartette[f] December 15, 1945 2:52
7 "Atomic Love" Little Caesar with The Red Callender Sextette c. 1957 3:22
8 "Atomic Telephone" Spirit of Memphis Quartet[g] c. June 1951 3:04
9 "Red's Dream" Louisiana Red[h] 1962 3:10
Total length: 25:10

Featured in the film but not the soundtrack were "13 Women" by Bill Haley and His Comets,[47] Glenn Miller's version of "Flying Home",[48] a couple of themes from Miklos Rozsa, Arthur Fiedler's take on Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2[49] and Charles Mackerras's interpretation of "The Old Castle" from Pictures at an Exhibition.[50]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "14. The 1980s and American Documentary". Contemporary American Cinema. McGraw-Hill Education. May 16, 2006. p. 291. ISBN 9780335228430. Retrieved 24 February 2023.
  2. ^ McLane Betsy "Film Quarterly", film review, Spring 1983. Last accessed: November 27, 2012.
  3. ^ Canby, Vincent (17 March 1982). "DOCUMENTARY ON VIEWS ABOUT ATOM BOMB". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 February 2023.
  4. ^ a b Epstein, Sonia (March 30, 2018). "False Truths: The Atomic Cafe Seen Today". Sloan Science & Film. Retrieved May 5, 2018.
  5. ^ a b "With "20,000 Leagues," the National Film Registry Reaches 700". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2020-05-18.
  6. ^ "Film Forum · THE ATOMIC CAFE". Retrieved 24 February 2023.
  7. ^ "THE ATOMIC CAFE: Ducking, Covering, and the American Cultural FALLOUT - Brows Held High". Retrieved 24 February 2023 – via YouTube.
  8. ^ Schindel, Dan (7 August 2018). "The Comic Absurdity of the Atomic Threat". Retrieved 24 February 2023.
  9. ^ "Atomic Cafe". 15 January 2009. Retrieved 24 February 2023.
  10. ^ McLane Betsy. "Film Quarterly", film review, Spring 1983. Last accessed: November 27, 2012.
  11. ^ Conelrad: All Things Atomic. The Atomic Cafe, Jayne Loader Interview. Last accessed: November 26, 2012.
  12. ^ Posen, R. Barry "Defense Policy and the Reagan Administration: Departure from Containment", Journal article. Last accessed: November 27, 2012.
  13. ^ Mielke Bob. "Film Quarterly", film review, Spring 2005. Last Accessed: November 27, 2012.
  14. ^ Glass, Fred (Spring 1983). "ATOMIC CAFE". Film Quarterly. 36 (3): 51–54. doi:10.2307/3697350. JSTOR 3697350. ProQuest 853155453.
  15. ^ Aufderheide, Patricia (November 2007). Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction (7th ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195182705.
  16. ^ Connie Field's 'The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter'|International Documentary Association
  17. ^ Rick Prelinger: We have always recycled|BFI
  18. ^ Herman, Robin (1982-05-16). "THEY TURNED OLD MOVIES INTO A TIMELY FILM ABOUT NUCLEAR WAR". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-11-23.
  19. ^ Olubunmi, Oloruntoba John (16 March 2008). "The Atomic Cafe – Senses of Cinema". Retrieved 24 February 2023.
  20. ^ Conelrad: All Things Atomic. The Atomic Cafe, Jayne Loader Interview. Last accessed: February 20, 2011.
  21. ^ a b Canby, Vincent (17 March 1982). "DOCUMENTARY ON VIEWS ABOUT ATOM BOMB (Published 1982)". The New York Times.
  22. ^ Trebbe, Ann L. "Cinema Verties." The Washington Post 6 Nov. 1981, C3 sec.
  23. ^ a b "CONELRAD: THE ATOMIC CAFE | Jayne Loader Interview [Fall 2002, Winter 2005]". Retrieved 24 February 2023.
  24. ^ a b Harrington, Richard. "Blast from the Past: 'Atomic Cafe': A Stunning Cold War Collage." The Washington Post 14 May 1982, C1 sec.
  25. ^ "The Atomic Cafe". Retrieved 24 February 2023.
  26. ^
  27. ^ "The Atomic Cafe (1982) – Re-Release Trailer(1)". 28 July 2018. Retrieved 24 February 2023 – via Vimeo.
  28. ^ "Bethesda presents THE ATOMIC CAFE". 19 September 2018. Retrieved 24 February 2023 – via Vimeo.
  29. ^ "Kino: 4K Restoration of The Atomic Cafe Detailed for Blu-ray". Retrieved 24 February 2023.
  30. ^ "The Atomic Cafe Blu-ray". Retrieved 24 February 2023.
  31. ^ Wen, Howard. Dallas Observer, "GROUND ZERO: Atomic Cafe filmmaker Jayne Loader has won raves for her CD-ROM Public Shelter, but calls the 'new medium' a dud," June 27, 1996. Last accessed: February 20, 2011.
  32. ^ "WEDDINGS; Jayne Loader, Robert Kirshner". The New York Times. 1999-12-12. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-11-23.
  33. ^ Ebert, Roger (January 1, 1982). "The Atomic Cafe movie review & film summary (1982)". Chicago Sun-Times.
  34. ^ "The Thing, The Atomic Café, The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time!, Megaforce, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, 1982 – Siskel and Ebert Movie Reviews". Retrieved 24 February 2023.
  35. ^ Canby, Vincent (1982-04-25). "FILM VIEW; PONDERING REAL CONCERNS OF THE 1950'S". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-11-23.
  36. ^ "DVD Savant Review: The Atomic Cafe, 20th Anniversary Edition". Retrieved 24 February 2023.
  37. ^ "The Atomic Cafe (1982)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2020-11-01.
  38. ^ Boyle, Deirdre, "The Atomic Cafe", Cineaste 12.2, 1982, p. 39.
  39. ^ Latham, Rob (2014-09-01). The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199838851.
  40. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2020-05-18.
  41. ^ @MMFlint (May 29, 2018). "This is the movie that told me that a documentary about a deadly serious subject could be very funny. Then I asked…" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  42. ^ "Boston Society of Film Critics Awards (1983)". Retrieved 24 February 2023.
  43. ^ "In 1982, the hilarious documentary "The Atomic Café" reminded us that the threat of nuclear war was no joke-Night Flight". Archived from the original on 26 October 2020. Retrieved 24 February 2023.
  44. ^ "The Atomic Cafe (1982) - Movie". Retrieved 24 February 2023.
  45. ^ "Original Soundtrack - Atomic Cafe Album Reviews, Songs & More". AllMusic. Retrieved 25 February 2023.
  46. ^ Conelrad web site, Atomic Cafe: History Done Right. Last accessed: February 20, 2011.
  47. ^ "Thirteen Women (And Only One Man In Town)". Retrieved 24 February 2023 – via YouTube.
  48. ^ "Flying Home (Remastered 2001)". Retrieved 24 February 2023 – via YouTube.
  49. ^ "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2". Retrieved 24 February 2023 – via YouTube.
  50. ^ "Pictures at an Exhibition". Retrieved 24 February 2023 – via YouTube.


  1. ^ Blind John Davis played piano, Ted Summitt played guitar, and Armand "Jump" Jackson played drums.
  2. ^ This audio clip is in the soundtrack, but not officially listed.
  3. ^ Red Rector may have played the mandolin solo.
  4. ^ Not to be confused with the soul music group Commodores.
  5. ^ Ronnie Russell was the main singer, Jim Bruhn played the instrumentation.
  6. ^ Zutty Singleton played the drums, Dodo Marmarosa played the piano, Tiny Brown played bass, and Gaillard played the guitar. Brown and Gaillard did the vocals.
  7. ^ Robert Reed, tenor, and Earl Malone, bass, sung. Jet Bledsoe and Sila Steele are lead singers.
  8. ^ Carl Lynch played bass, Panama Francis played the drums.

External links[edit]