Jayne Loader and brothers Kevin and Pierce Rafferty, the team responsible for "The Atomic Cafe," are quick to point out that they worked on their film for more than five years, the same amount of time it took Jonathan Schell to write "The Fate of the Earth."

It's good fortune both projects were finished at an apex of political and social obsession with the issue of nuclear war. Schell has so far declined to support his book with television interviews, but fans of "60 Minutes," "The Today Show," "Good Morning America," "David Letterman" and "20/20" have all seen significant clips from "The Atomic Cafe." It's million-dollar publicity for a film that cost only $300,000.

Then again, there's a lot of old tax money behind the film, which was created from government atomic propaganda of the '40s and '50s, interspersed with newsreel, radio and record clips from that period. Inspired by a cold-war mind-set, the clips used in "Atomic Cafe" suggest a long-term effort to deceive the public about the true risks of nuclear warfare. In a modern era of orderly evacuations, T.K. Jones' instant bomb shelters, nuclear change-of-address cards and new government propaganda films, the not-so-distant past is worth a second, close look.

"We didn't know when we started exactly what we were going to do with the film," Pierce Rafferty, 29, insists. Adds brother Kevin, 34, "Our original idea was to make a film about propaganda." Jayne Loader, 30, chimes in, "We also wanted to do a film with no narration, to use the documents we were finding to speak for themselves. We didn't call the government and say, 'Send us the most incriminating stuff that's going to make you look stupid.' "

If the trio sometimes speaks with one voice, it's also a team that speaks with three distinct voices, a professional kinship inspired by 10,000 hours of viewing, mostly on movieolas, whittling hours of footage down to minutes and eventually seconds. "We picked a day and location to meet at noon," says Pierce Rafferty. "And we chose Jimmy Carter's Inauguration Day so that if we forgot the day we could always check the paper."

As Carter settled on the Pennsylvania Avenue, Pierce Rafferty did, too . . . at the Archives. A professional researcher, he spent so much time there that the staff "joked about renting me a seat. In the early stages Kevin and Jayne were there as well. We became a fixture." Pierce Rafferty supported the team financially during that long period as a consultant and researcher on a number of other documentaries, including "With Babies and Banners," "The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter" and "El Salvador--Another Vietnam."

A year into the project, the trio decided to focus on atom bomb propaganda. The government materials that make up 75 percent of "Atomic Cafe" were in the public domain, which meant that copies were struck at the filmmakers' expense. The remaining footage came from the commercial copyright companies (BBC, Hearst, Fox, Paramount) and television network newsreels. These were "strictly money contracts," says Pierce Rafferty. "Those companies exist to sell footage. However, we didn't know the film was going to get full theatrical release, so we had to go back and renegotiate all the contracts for world rights, which upped the budget considerably."

What eventually emerged was "a point of view," according to Kevin Rafferty. "We don't think it's right to put a lot of energy into contemplating surviving or winning a nuclear war and the U.S. government did and continues to put a lot of time, money and energy into making us think that we can survive and maybe win--though they've stopped saying win.

"We cut the film and looked for the most condensed expression from the government of that point of view. That's where the humor comes from; it's not that we're cutting things to be funny, it's because the material is. Like when Timmy jumps off his bike when he sees the atomic flash--people in the audience know that had Timmy been exposed to that flash, he'd be fried or at least blinded. Part of the problem is that the government really belittled or made fun of people's rational fears or played down the dangers of nuclear war in an attempt to try to convince or reassure the American public that nuclear was something to be dealt with lightly; one clip says, 'The military has no corner on risk' as a woman burns her hand on a stove. Equating that to the dangers of radiation is a mentality inherent in a lot of those clips."

The elements that have been receiving talk-show exposure involve propaganda segments produced by the Army and Civil Defense.

"The Atomic Cafe" ended up drawing from the pop culture of the times, as well. Having stumbled onto a song called "This Cold War With You," Loader ended up at the Library of Congress hunting up atom bomb songs. A soundtrack from the film, full of wonderful country, blues, gospel and '50s rock songs, is already getting strong airplay. Publisher Ian Ballantine offered a contract 90 minutes after seeing the film; a Garfield-sized, semi-instant paperback will appear at the end of the month.

Still, the Raffertys and Loader never expected "Atomic Cafe" to play to large audiences. "We were prepared to take it under our arms and go knocking on doors, saying, 'Can we show our movie?' " A New York screening of the nearly completed film started a chain reaction that began with much-needed last-minute funding and ended with the coincidence of the film's subject matter and national concerns. All the talk and news show exposure is gratifying because "we've had access to a larger audience than will probably ever see our film," Kevin Rafferty says. "And we're gladly reaching that larger audience because 'Atomic Cafe' wasn't made specifically for a committed, political audience. With the sense of humor and entertainment, we always intended that it get beyond the normal confines of a political documentary."