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'Sputnick' Stirs Powerful Memories

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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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