Saturday, March 1, 2008

Sputnik Mania

On October 4, 1957, the Russians launched the first satellite into space. It was called Sputnik. And its orbit around the earth fueled both the sci-fi fantasies and Cold War fears of an entire nation. Initially cause for inspiration and celebration, Sputnik soon became the space age measuring stick by which the United States fell short. And following on the heels of the unmatched technical achievement came fears of Soviet world domination: the end of freedom and democracy as Communism overtakes the planet. Or even worse, the nuclear annihilation of civilization.

David Hoffman's documentary Sputnik Mania traces the events that followed the launch of Sputnik 1 in painstaking and loving detail. From the space race that led to an arms race that finally led to the creation of NASA--a civilian, rather than military, agency for the furthering of peaceful space exploration for the benefit of all mankind. Using news footage, old headlines, defense videos and a soundtrack that features music from 1957-58, Hoffman faithfully captures the mood and milieu of that period. From the seriously authoritative narration by Liev Schreiber to the newscast footage of journalistic giants like Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow to quotes by then President Eisenhower, the filmmaker is carefully even-handed in depicting the events which set the Cold War into a deep freeze and set the arms race on the fast track.

According to Hoffman,

"With my editor, John Vincent Barrett, I believe we created a new documentary style. A style that embraces the timeless feel of black-and-white footage while staying true to the soundtrack of that era. I found the film in a wide array of places – primarily from You Tube and eBay actually. The real challenge however was diligently tracking the footage from middle European and Russian underground sources. Once that was underway, we then had to secure the rights by contacting quite a few people – eventually paying through the nose!"
While neutrality is an admirable trait for a historical documentary, Sputnik Mania lacks the verve and spice--and entertainment factor--of the more agenda-driven Michael Moore type of film. Even when the "mania" reaches a fever pitch of mass hysteria--the building of bomb shelters by suburban middle class residents, aid raid drills in New York City, Soviet propaganda movies (which, by the way, weren't too far off the mark in their depiction of the racial strife and class warfare occurring in the U.S.)--Hoffman's film stays balanced and just a wee bit boring. Seriously, I've sat through films on photosynthesis in the eighth grade that were more compelling--but then I've got a thing for time lapse photography...

There's a brief appearance by comedian Robert Klein, who dryly recounts his experience as a kid in 1958 and when he was given dogtags by his teacher in school who explained that they could withstand temperatures up to 1,000 degrees centigrade, so that "we could be identified in the case we were burned beyond recognition." A little more irreverence or maybe a bit more levity (and perhaps Klein handling narration duties?) would have benefited the telling of the story. Of the few moments of sublime surreality, my favorite was a quote from President Dwight D. Eisenhower responding to the call to step up the arms race:
"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this, a modern brick school in more than 30 cities."
Wow. Boggles the mind, doesn't it? This from a former five-star general AND a Republican. Where are you Ike when we need you! The American reaction to "Muttnik" was another intriguing snippet. Imagine if PETA had been active in 1958! Sergei Krushchev, son of Nikita, offers some spry and insightful comments over the course of the story and toward the end of the film, a brief appearance by "Rocket Boy" Homer Hickam (subject of the Jake Gyllenhaal movie October Sky) is inserted with very little fanfare. A bit more in the way of contextual clues and references would offer viewers a better way to synthesize the information presented.

says of his intent:
"In the end, I hope audiences will walk away thinking about the present. For instance, here we are in an election year where it is obvious that leadership matters. SPUTNIK MANIA uncovers that President Eisenhower was a strategic leader while it appears that President Bush has been a tactical leader. The film not only brings to light the importance of long-term strategies directing short-term actions or inactions, but also reminds us that little has changed from fifty years ago. Sputnik reveals our inner-most reactions to fear and how and why we ultimately turned those visceral reactions into a much larger positive. I believe that Sputnik was not just a piece of American history, but a piece of world history and is a valuable learning tool for all of the world's citizens."
I don't know that Sputnik Mania achieves all that, but it does offer a thorough and detailed accounting of the year following the Sputnik launch. For those who marveled at October Sky, watched every installment of From the Earth to the Moon and relived their own astronaut fantasies while viewing Apollo 13, Sputnik Mania is informative and insightful. It opens March 14th in New York City at the IFC Center and it offers an intriguing look at a pivotal moment in American history.

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