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Monday, Mar 10, 2008

In celebration of the Coen Brothers’ Oscar winning No Country for Old Men (arriving on DVD today, 11 March), Short Ends and Leader looks back at a May 2007 piece regarding the promise of the latest offering from the filmmakers, as well as their overall career trajectory.


The review in the most recent Variety says it all – after half a decade in the cinematic wilderness, the Coen Brothers have apparently returned to their original, brilliant filmmaking forte. The movie in question is their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s drug and death thriller No Country for Old Men, and advanced word is more than favorable. Indeed, it’s the kind of unmitigated praise (with words like ‘brilliant’ and ‘masterpiece’ tossed around) that the skilled siblings once attained with surprising regularity. Fans who have long hoped for a return to form should be smiling from ear to ear, and while we will have to wait until sometime in late November to see if the Cannes screening buzz is true, any promise of their previous brilliance is worth celebrating.


You see, the Coens were, at one time, undeniable gods of quirky, unconventional filmmaking. While they never delivered a monster mainstream motion picture (2000’s O’ Brother Where Art Thou? is the closest they every came to a certified hit) they also never really hid behind a veil of independent or outsider auteurship. Instead, writer/producer Ethan and writer/director Joel have openly helmed some of the most memorable movies of the last two decades, remarkable masterworks with titles like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn’t There. In all, the nine films they made over their first 17 years in the industry represent the best that modern cinema can achieve. They even achieved that rarity for visionary artists – an actual Oscar (for crafting the screenplay for Fargo).


But something happened in 2001, right around the time that their black and white opus The Man Who Wasn’t There was hitting theaters. For a long time, the Coens had hated the idea of working outside the system. While their films had always been embraced by the studios (well, mostly), they had never really had a concrete deal to depend on. But when O’ Brother went ballistic, giving former ER star George Clooney a substantial boost into the realm of superstardom, the boys appeared ready to bathe in the limelight of legitimacy. They took a sketchy divorce comedy by a pair of unheralded Hollywood hacks (Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, responsible for Life, Big Trouble, and the horrid Man of the House), reworked the material to fit their idiosyncratic ideals, and got their pal George back on board. Suddenly, Intolerable Cruelty was on the production fast track.


When A-listers Catherine Zeta-Jones, Billy Bob Thorton and Geoffrey Rush signed on, it looked like the Coens would finally see some solid commercial returns. And they didn’t intend to totally abandon their esoteric cinematic style. As they saw it, this was a chance to meld their vision with a viable high profile product. Unfortunately, they failed both demographics. Devotees destroyed the film, seeing nothing of their favorite filmmakers in the dull, derivative mess. Even worse, audiences outside the boys’ normal sphere of influence discovered very little to like about this cobbled together collection of clipped dialogue, oddball characters, and stylized visual imagery. After a few feeble weeks at the box office, the film only earned back half of its $60 million price tag.


Luckily, the guys had already lined up their next project. Looking for something to subvert his normal nice guy image onscreen, megastar Tom Hanks provided the duo with their crumbling career safety net. He hooked up with the Coens for their planned remake of the Alec Guiness classic The Ladykillers, hoping that by playing a corrupt con man looking to rob a local bank he could win back a little of the acting credibility he once had (the man owns a pair of Academy brass, remember). The cast was fleshed out with additional faces unfamiliar to the boys’ standard acting crew (J.K. Simmons, Marlon Wayans), and while Hanks excelled in the lead, the rest of the movie felt oddly off balance. Even the staunchest Coen supporters had a hard time defending its flatness.


The result was a flop of reputational, not financial, proportions (the movie made money, believe it or not). What was happening to the brothers was something they had never experienced in the past. With the weak one-two punch of these underperforming efforts, followers began to doubt their inherent artistic acumen. At one time, their amiable aesthetic was unquestionable. The guys were geniuses and that was that. But somehow, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers showed that these irrefutable emperors did indeed have some frayed bits in their otherwise fanciful clothes. Of course, such a conclusion was only partly true, but the status carried. Suddenly, the one time deities of motion picture mastery were viewed as vulnerable, flawed, and very, very human.


Again, it’s not hard to see why. Modern writers/directors would give up their posh seats at the trendiest restaurant of the moment to claim any one of the Coens’ previous efforts. Blood Simple was such a shock to the system that mainstream critics like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were beside themselves with praise. The follow-up, the comedy classic Raising Arizona remains one of the great ensemble laugh fests ever formulated. With those two projects alone, most moviemakers would be satisfied, but the Coens continued their scorching streak of cinematic stalwarts.


During an unusual period of writer’s block, the brothers managed to salvage two scripts from the depths of literary despair. The final products – Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink – stand as the best examples of the boys’ early period works. Dense, obtuse and frighteningly fleshed out, their takes on the period crime caper (Crossing) and the Golden Era of Hollywood (Fink) function as fascinating bookends, movies that completely encapsulate and explain the Coens’ interpretation of the language of film. Both projects wallowed in excessive detail, used sequences of startling violence, and just the slightest hint of socially unacceptable behavior (drinking, death) to round out their splashy, flashy finesse.


After their massive critical success, the pair was picked up by super producer Joel Silver to make their next movie – a satiric screwball comedy about big business entitled The Hudsucker Proxy. Like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying sans the music and misguided optimism, the Coens riffed on everything old fashioned and mannered about the post-War Tinsel Town comedies, and came up with a bafflingly insular work that few outside the fanbase could cotton to. From Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mysterious Kate Hepburn brogue to a plot premised on stock market fluctuations and company corruption, it took a few years of reconsideration before anyone considered Hudsucker a worthy companion to the boys’ previous gems.


Fargo, of course, was the duo’s final coming out. When Gene Siskel declared that he was sure he would not see a better film the rest of the year – and it was MARCH 1996 when he made such a statement – you just knew something special was in the offing. Driven by an idiosyncratic setting (upper Minnesota) and equally arcane accents, the Coens created a kidnapping/murder mystery with as much buffoonery as bite. With Oscar worthy performances from William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi, and an Award winning turn by star Frances McDormand, the guys finally received the industry idolatry they so richly deserved (and statuettes for Best Original Screenplay).


The final three films in their notable nine movie run were equally important. The Big Lebowski proved that the Coens had lost none of their ridiculous razor’s edge, turning the story of a stoner and a case of mistaken identity into a fresh and full bodied farce. O’ Brother showcased the power in music, as well as the boys’ understanding of rural America revisionism. And when The Man Who Wasn’t There offered up a similar theme of flat feloniousness among small town folk, its anti-histrionic take on such acts of desperation was a revelation. So it’s no substantial shock that Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers would feel like letdowns. Neither was an original creation from the guy’s unusual perspective, and neither tried to funnel their fascinating film fusion into a cohesive or vital vision. In fact, when the quirkiest element involved remains Tom Hank’s Southern dandy accent, you know you’ve swayed from what made you famous in the first place.


So it’s great to hear the outpouring of praise for No Country for Old Men. It’s been a long time since the Coens captured the imagination of the creative community, and though they’ve only been out of consideration for a few years, their exile from importance seems infinite. At one time, they wrote the new rules on how to deliver motion pictures from the mundane and the stagnant. They catered to characterization instead of high concepts, and smoothed out their scripts with a narrative flow as fluid as a puddle of pulsating mercury. If they end up winning Cannes’ biggest prizes (as they have done several times before) or simply walk away with the word of mouth necessary to jumpstart their next few films, then all is right in the cinematic universe. The Coens used to be said cosmos’ brightest stars. It’s wonderful to know they haven’t supernova-ed, at least not yet.


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Sunday, Mar 9, 2008


Historians hate it when movies take liberties with the archeological truth. From the homoerotic overkill of something like 300, which got blasted for turning Spartans into studly supermodels, to the recent reaming given to The Other Boleyn Girl for Harlequin-ing the reign of Henry VIII, the past gets perverted a great deal of the time. Now, no one is expecting a 100% accurate depiction of events long ago, and the only engaging documentary of the time would be one actually made in said era (Morgan Spurlock presents Renaissance Me!). So in essence, we have to take the good with the bad, the dramatic license with the downright ludicrous (Elizabeth: The Golden Age, anyone?).


Now comes Roland Emmerich’s Neanderthal nonsense 10,000 BC. It mixes and matches its historic perspective in a mishmash of anthropology and inanity. Aside from the fact that several phases of human existence seem to be living within a few days walk of each other, we get beasts and byplay from several significant epochs. Clearly, this pulp popcorn movie is not meant to be an educational trek through time. But one has to wonder what real lessons could be learned from studying the stupidity onscreen. After a weekend of rumination, here are some suggestions for the clear cut instruction it provides. In many cases, the educational elements are more intriguing than the entertainment - or lack thereof:



Great ‘White’ Messiahs Figure Prominently in All Prehistoric Myth


You’d think that only your standard Caucasian clan of the cave bear would worship a bearded, long haired proto-human with magical powers. But back before the actual Christ, almost every wilderness tribe supposedly had a fable focusing on a great white savior. No matter the skin color, tribal make-up, or hunter/gatherer mentality, seems only Anglos can be angels in the prehistoric world.



It Really Was a Territorial Tower of Babel


Language is often called the original prejudice. Even today, it remains a barrier to better understanding and international accord. But back at the dawn of man, people really didn’t communicate with each other, and for good reason - they couldn’t. With broken English the regional standard, few were fluent in either gobbledygook or mumbo jumbo. Some could swing a few words of claptrap. Unintelligible gibberish, on the other hand, remained the true mother tongue.



Reincarnation Rules!


It’s always sad when you lose a loved one. It’s even worse when her death is meant as a symbolic gesture of karmic adjustment and potential narrative melodrama. But there’s no real need to worry - old people’s souls are here! That’s right, as long as the proper cosmic connections are made, and the running time has reached the right point, a dying old coot will supply your dead love with a new infusion of life-giving spirit.



Saber-Toothed Tigers Understand Situational Ethics


So you’re a legendary feline, mouth filled with an impressive pair of torso-tearing incisors. You’re trapped in a hole that is rapidly filling up, flash flood style, with water. You’re about to die when - Eureka! - you’re saved by a waifish caveman. Do you - (a) eat the caveman? (b) eat the caveman? or (c) ignore your eons of instinctual behavior and spare the human, only to later become his benefactor and bodyguard?



Mammoths/ Mastodons Can Really Haul Ass


Wooly and elephantine, few would view these oversized behemoths as Triple Crown contenders. But, apparently, if you get a group of hygienically challenged prairie dwellers with spears made from your relatives chasing after you, it’s Preakness time! That’s right, these two ton terrors are rather fleet of foot when scrawny, hungry Cro-Magnons come calling. Even better, they’ll go Lord of the Rings Mumak on you if given half a chance.



Religious Superstitution = an Empire’s Undoing


So, you’ve mastered engineering, using ancient technology and science to develop complex construction systems. You’re learning is so advanced that you’ve also mastered both land and sea. You even have domain over man and his animal brethren. Yet the minute some gal comes along with a symbolic scar on her hand, you get all gooey. In fact, your false beliefs are so great you instantly find yourself vulnerable to complete destruction. And the value of your faith is what again?



Blue Eyes = Bad Omens


From the most primitive biped to the least Aryan Nazi, Topaz peepers can only mean one thing - troubles a’ brewin’. Though we take it for granted nowadays, and tend to celebrate those who’ve been “blessed” with Cobalt coloration, the indigenous peoples of several eons ago went bonkers upon seeing such an optically gifted individual. Apparently, it has something to do with the rarity of the condition, the startling appearance, and the overall concept of dreaminess.



Oversized Ostrich Buzzards Were the Velociraptros of 10,000 BC


Though they looked like a cornball version of John Dante’s demons from Twilight Zone: The Movie, the gigantic dino-birds of ages part actually resemble their supposed genetic ancestry. They stalk and hunt their prey in high foliage fashion, popping out at predetermined internals to give anyone watching a complimentary jolt. They use their beaks for ripping and shredding. They can climb great heights with little or no predisposition toward same. And they squawk like Hell.



Megalomaniacal Godlike Figures Are Way Too Fashion Conscious


When you’re trying to dictate the direction of your domain’s inhabitants - both natural born and “invited” - it’s imperative that you keep the references to Jean-Paul Gautier and Tarsem to a minimum. You should look like a ruler, a visionary leader of all creatures great and small, not some foreign filmmaker’s fever dream. Covering oneself from head to toe with what looks like a teenage girl’s canopy bed drape is hilarious, not heroic…or haute couture.
 


Sloppy CGI Spectacle Still Fills Seats


Audiences never learn, do they? Even when the reviews indicate that a film will be nothing more than a semi-involving example of cheesy effects and stilted dialogue, they still plunk down their dosh and turn those styles. 10,000 BC raked in over $3,500 per year over the 7 March weekend, taking the number one spot away from position pretenders Raven Simone (College Road Trip) and Jeremy Statham (The Bank Job). Apparently, there’s an equally exponential amount of suckers born every minute.


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Thursday, Mar 6, 2008


For the weekend beginning 7 March, here are the films in focus:


The Bank Job [rating: 7]


(The Bank Job is) efficient without being pedestrian, tweaking the suspense here and there to add the proper amount of intrigue to the elements.


During its heyday, the heist genre was a quick witted assemblage of action and antics. It represented a combination of smarts and savoir faire, breaking and entering tricks matched to jet set cocktail party wits. In recent years, the mechanics have taken over the mirth, turning many of these tales into high tech actioners with low levels of actual fun. Roger Donaldson’s The Bank Job doesn’t change that formula. In fact, it frequently embraces the serious side of its material much more than is necessary. But when you’re dealing with a supposedly true story, involving the loftiest levels of British Intelligence and the Royal Family itself, humor is hard to find. read full review…


Sputnik Mania [rating: 7]


...when it plays to our sense of selective memory and fills in the blanks on issues long forgotten, Sputnik Mania is masterful.


No one remembers Vantage. It crashed and burned on the launch pad. A few may recall Explorer, our first legitimate unmanned orbital mission. But mention the name Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that literally shocked the world, and you’ll get all kinds of learned and intransigent responses. In 1957, the US seemed like heaven on earth. Post war prosperity was creating a considerable Middle Class, while an unprecedented military strength suggested a sense of infallibility.


But when Russia launched the 185 lb metal sphere into the ionosphere, it signaled the start of two major international confrontations - the Cold War and the Space Race. According to David Hoffman in his excellent archival documentary Sputnik Mania, no other action would push the globe closer to the brink of nuclear annihilation than this peaceful scientific folly to explore the unknown mysteries of our galaxy.read full review…


10,000 BC [rating: 4]


As a series of set pieces looking for any available fable to keep it afloat, 10,000 BC is really nothing more than computing power and implausibility.


When you see the name Roland Emmerich on a film’s credits, you expect a little cheese. After all, the cheddar-fied flavor of wildly uneven spectacles like Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow mandate such an evaluation. But no one can prepare you for the ungodly Gouda of 10,000 BC. An amalgamation of much better movies, riffing on offerings as diverse as Quest for Fire, Apocalypto, The Ten Commandments, and any number of creaky ancient myths, Emmerich has finally hit the Monterey Jack-pot. This is a film so completely devoid of creative invention that it entertains by rote, using CG-eye candy and narrative familiarity to barely get by.read full review…


Other Releases - In Brief


Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day [rating: 6]


What do you get when you cross the stiff upper lip British perseverance of a pre-WWII London with the classic American screwball comedy? Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day might just be the answer. How two seemingly incongruous elements like the mannered and the madcap fit into the 2008 movie landscape is an issue that Indian filmmaker Bharat Nalluri handles quite well. He takes the tale of a prudish nanny (Frances McDormand) with a tendency toward unemployment, and finds a natural foil in a ditzy Yank actress (Amy Adams) juggling three different gentlemen. Together, the pair serpentines through social faux paxs, personal indiscretions, and soul-searching moments of the heart. Miss Pettigrew - as a persona and a film - is far from perfect. There’s a laid back quality to the narrative that really needs a breakneck pacing to stay potent. And Adams remains Hollywood’s go-to gal for unnatural perkiness. But Nalluri finds a halfway decent balance between his incompatible approaches, resulting in a likeable, if often lumbering, Golden Age piffle.


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Thursday, Mar 6, 2008


When you see the name Roland Emmerich on a film’s credits, you expect a little cheese. After all, the cheddar-fied flavor of wildly uneven spectacles like Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow mandate such an evaluation. But no one can prepare you for the ungodly Gouda of 10,000 BC. An amalgamation of much better movies, riffing on offerings as diverse as Quest for Fire, Apocalypto, The Ten Commandments, and any number of creaky ancient myths, Emmerich has finally hit the Monterey Jack-pot. This is a film so completely devoid of creative invention that it entertains by rote, using CG-eye candy and narrative familiarity to barely get by.


Somewhere in a mixed up pre-history, the father of D’Leh leaves his hunter/gatherer tribe and sets out for unknown territories. This labels him a coward, and his son an outcast. When a blue eyed girl named Evolet shows up, village shaman Old Mother predicts doom. The proposed wooly mammoth hunt will not go well, and even worse, ‘four legged demons’ will arrive and decimate the clan. Sure enough, an invading horde of evildoers arrives and takes all available inhabitants hostage. They will be marched across the empty wilderness and then used as slave labor for a sitting ‘god’ of a legendary domain known as ‘the head of the snake.’ Along with elder Tic-Tic, and a few remaining men, D’Leh builds up his courage and follows the kidnappers, rallying the remaining tribes along the way. He then plans to take on the imposing figure building an empire off the backs of some very unwilling captives, and rescue Evolet.


As a series of set pieces looking for any available fable to keep it afloat, 10,000 BC is really nothing more than computing power and implausibility. It is cinema that strains to be relevant while failing every test of scope or significance. Emmerich, who has made chicken nuggets out of pullet poo in the past (Independence Day remains a relatively guilty but undeniable pleasure) never fully realizes his aims here, instead squandering potential moments of power for ambiguous folklore, prophetic convenience, and a true sense of scattered purpose.


There is very little that makes sense, from the reason our hero can’t carry the sacred white spear, the entire Saber-toothed Tiger sequence (which plays out like a sloppy Aesop version of Hercules and the Lion) to the last act almost reveal of our villain. And then there’s the malarkey of the “magical” ending. In many ways, 10,000 BC feels like a badly constructed parable, the ever-present narrator (Omar Sharif) getting many of the facts wrong and more or less making it up along the way.


The references to other movies are so readily apparent you can practically smell them wafting off the screen. Emmerich must have been moved by Mel Gibson’s Mayan bloodbath. He’s incorporated many of that film’s white hat/black hat simplicity and foreign language oddness. Instead of going all native, however, this director gets mixed linguistics, meaning some characters speak English, while others use their own words with (or without) translation. Nothing inspires drama quicker than waiting for a day player to explain what a supporting hero just said. Sometimes, Emmerich supplies subtitles. At other moments, the words supposedly have no meaning. When it tries for significance, it sinks. When it simply goes along lumbering under bitmap versions of ballyhoo, it’s mildly endearing.


Better casting definitely could have helped this film. 10,000 BC relies far too readily on pretty faces with empty magnetism to power its purpose, with even the more unusual and unknown foreign actors rendered generic by Emmerich’s ham-fisted touch. Our leads could easily be lumped into the “anyone from the OC” category, and we never care about the outcome of our lover’s dilemma. There’s a real sense of situational contrivance here, bad things easily circumvented by plot point coincidence or storyline self-adjustment. You can actually feel the screenwriters reacting, seeing a potential pitfall and then cooking up a clunky way out. Your unconscious viewership shifts so often under the weight of so many unexplained issues and phony motion picture happenstance that you get woozy.


While no one goes into this kind of movie expecting absolute authenticity and scientific accuracy, some of the taken liberties are downright insane. There’s a moment where pissed-off dino-birds go Jurassic Park on our traveling warriors, and the ancient priests who serve the villainous uber God look like rejects from a drag version of 300 by way of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Emmerich pitches everything so high, so vast if clearly vacant, that we get a strange feeling of entertainment vertigo. It’s as if, at any moment, the massive holes in 10,000 BC will open up and swallow us up. Unlike past attempts to revive dead genres - Gladiator and the sword and sandal peplum, Lord of the Rings and the entire fantasy film category - there is no way this movie would resurrect the caveman picture. It’s not engaging or original enough.


In the end, 10,000 BC fails because its unwieldy parts can come together to create an intriguing whole. Emmerich constantly goes for the money shot, making F/X rule where people should actually count. But since he’s gotten away with it before - The Day After Tomorrow is mostly event driven - this is one director who figures that such a strategy will always work. It doesn’t. Unless you like your fromage on the incredibly stinky and stale side, kitsch or camp value overwhelmed by a Limburger level of ludicrousness, then avoid this fossilized flop. Roland Emmerich can make decent disposable entertainment. This is one effort that’s more of a throwaway than a treat.



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Thursday, Mar 6, 2008


No one remembers Vantage. It crashed and burned on the launch pad. A few may recall Explorer, our first legitimate unmanned orbital mission. But mention the name Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that literally shocked the world, and you’ll get all kinds of learned and intransigent responses. In 1957, the US seemed like heaven on earth. Post war prosperity was creating a considerable Middle Class, while an unprecedented military strength suggested a sense of infallibility.


But when Russia launched the 185 lb metal sphere into the ionosphere, it signaled the start of two major international confrontations - the Cold War and the Space Race. According to David Hoffman in his excellent archival documentary Sputnik Mania, no other action would push the globe closer to the brink of nuclear annihilation than this peaceful scientific folly to explore the unknown mysteries of our galaxy.


We begin with the event itself, the launch ‘heard’ all over the planet. On 4 October, the secret project successfully beat the Americans at their own progressive game. Within weeks, President Eisenhower was challenged as to the superpower’s response. In between, the media went wild, frenzied over the event and its significance. Equally insightful was the Russians continued confidence that they would be the leaders in space exploration. But soon, the military began suggesting something far more sinister - Sputnik was merely a decoy, a chance for the USSR to test the effectiveness of its Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (or ICBMs). Previously, the US felt confident that its chief enemy couldn’t reach its borders with an H-bomb. Sputnik’s delivery system instantly changed that perspective.


From this point forward, Hoffman builds a convincing case for outrageous reactions, political subterfuge, and eventual acquiescence by Eisenhower. Before long, he is caving to demands both inside and outside the Oval Office. He greenlights Vantage, only to see it fail. He’s suspicious of Explorer because of its Army connection and the input of ex-Nazi rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun. Success leads to short term elation. But when the Soviets amplify the stakes by putting a dog named Laika into orbit, it appeared the US would never catch up. Luckily, the canine suicide mission, turned into a PR nightmare for the Communist nation.


There are lots of insightful moments like this in Sputnik Mania. While some may find it nothing more than an inflated History Channel special, there is a definite message beneath Hoffman’s fact parade. The key point made by this movie is that, for the most part, the satellite’s launch was wildly misinterpreted. While intelligence suggested a nuclear capability, all signs pointed to a purely scientific design. The other intriguing element is the back and forth beneath both leaders - Eisenhower in the West and Nikita Khrushchev in the East. At a summit near the end of the film, both men discover that the post-Sputnik Arms Race was more of a generals and majors idea than a clear mandate from the Commanders in Chief.


With access to a wealth of stunning stock footage and a talking head approach from those who were on the sidelines during the growing conflict, we get a wonderful overall picture of the times and temperament. The information on Vantage and Explorer is eye opening, as these American attempts at besting the Soviets are frequently forgotten in the situation’s mythos. There is also an Atomic Café style sequence where propaganda films and other media maelstroms are exposed for the short-sighted misinformation they were. Certainly, some of Hoffman’s choices are odd (pro-Communist rants fro Khrushchev’s son, comedian Robert Klein discussing civil defense dog tags) and there are moments of planned overkill (the notion that, in 1958 alone, Russia and the US detonated a nuclear weapon once every three DAYS! ). But there are also revelatory incidents, like the accidental bombing of a South Carolina city (a nuke came loose from an overhead plane and struck the town without exploding).


When it stays in this arena, when it plays to our sense of selective memory and fills in the blanks on issues long forgotten, Sputnik Mania is masterful. But just like the title, which seems a tad twee for the material, Hoffman tends to add unnecessary satire to the mix. Sure, the clips from A-bomb era movies are fun, but they tend to diminish the impact of the actual truth. Also, there are times when a surreal sense of inadvertent hero worship unfurls. When he appears indecisive and ill-prepared to respond to Sputnik, Eisenhower is viewed as a fool. But the minute he makes space a “peaceful” proposition - including the last minute stunt of Project SCORE and the championing of NASA - he’s seen as almost saintly.


It’s a weird juxtaposition, and argues for the difficult balancing act that any director must maintain. On the one hand, there is a desire to view this all as ridiculous, to see the struggle between two mighty nations for some proposed Star Wars scuffle in space to play like Buck Rogers gone potty. Yet some of these confrontations are laughable, legitimate fears exaggerated out of a lack of information and a sense of sudden morality. MAD - or mutual assured destruction - is never mentioned outright, but it is clear that the massive build-up of arms in the year after Sputnik may have actually saved the world from a nuclear holocaust.


Still, there is a lot of chest pounding and hand wringing here, the feigned nobility of the many boy’s rocket clubs that grew out of the era matched against the passionate animal lovers who challenged Russia about purposefully killing their space dog. Yet we buy most of it, if only because we believe so strongly in the storyline. Just like the attacks on 9/11, Sputnik reshaped the American mindset in a single foreign act. Responses, naturally, would be all over the map. Whoever breached the heavens first was more or less destined to determine the fate of mankind - if only for a little while. Sputnik Mania argues that, while the Soviets started the fire, the US clearly fanned the flames. Luckily, both sides came to their senses before it was too late.



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