In the battle for Estonia’s hearts and minds, the Soviet Union neglected to keep tabs on the nation’s butts, and boogie fever soon led, whether directly or indirectly, to the dissolution of the Iron Curtain. Or something to that effect. Disco and Atomic War is a lightly acerbic look at Soviet communism’s waning years through the filter of Estonian citizens’ obstreperous attempts to tune in their TV sets to the airwaves emanating from neighboring Finland. As remembered and recreated by filmmakers Jaak Kilmi and Kiur Aarma, Finland’s open market zeal for offering the most enticingly junky programming available (including, yes, some of American networks’ most addictive exports of the era like Dallas and Knight Rider) were, simply, the fresh taste of freedom. Or they were, at least, the only viable alternative to state-run, propaganda-saturated issue, which made it worth doing whatever it took to harness the signal. (At various points in flashback recreations, residents of the industrial hamlet Talinn are shown hoisting up antler-sized rabbit ears, installing their own chips and even breaking off the tops of mercury-filled thermometers because connecting them to their sets would amp up their reception…and screw everyone else nearby of theirs.)
Kilmi and Aarma’s look back is both affectionate and skeptical. Hindsight allows them the unusual benefit of looking upon their former governmental overlords with something like pity. The authorities are painted as a pack of befuddled, hangdog cronies too ancient to realize what they see as their own clout is barely a match for the magnetism of David Hasselhoff, Eurotrash softcore porn, and wedding reception-square disco instructionals. Their half-assed attempts to clamp down on the influx of Westernized frivolity retroactively seems to suggest just how far their totalitarian control had diminished, even before Estonians held their breath to find out just who shot J.R.
Still, it has to be said that Kilmi and Aarma don’t seem to fully trust the influence of American pop culture, even 30 years later, though it’s positioned as the tacky savior throughout the pointedly titled Disco and Atomic War. What then was consumed as a fresh new socio-economic flavor is unquestionably made the target of modern mockery, and Kilmi and Aarma’s stylistic default is dour, logy, understated satire, not rude-natured, vulgar vitality. Best of both worlds? Or evidence of the scars of self-censorship still left extant on the impressionable minds of youth coming of age in a moment of utter upheaval?