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Sputnik Mania

(History Channel; US DVD: 20 Jan 2008)

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Sputnik

Paul Dickson

The Shock of the Century

(Penguin)

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched a satellite that dramatically altered the world’s political and scientific communities. Sputnik crossed above the United States within sight, which stunned Americans and spawned a new culture of fear. Could the Russians drop unstoppable bombs from space and destroy the Western world? Were the communists really intellectually superior to the people in the “land of the free”?


The historic achievement was amazing, but it also spawned panic-filled responses that claimed the end was near.  The Space Race began with the flight of the small, 183-pound object, and sounds of high praise and enthusiasm joined the craziness enveloping the entire planet.


David Hoffman’s Sputnik Mania chronicles the game-changing moment of the Sputnik voyage, which inaugurated a brand-new era in human history. Assisted by an excellent collection of archival footage, narrator Liev Schreiber describes this serious blow to America’s assumed scientific and military superiority.


The 90-minute documentary originally aired on the History Channel, and it delivers an absorbing story. Hoffman avoids the “talking head” approach and relies more on actual footage than modern interviews. This approach generates a smooth, engaging pace with plenty of entertaining moments.


I was born well after Sputnik’s time, but one element that I recognize is the use of fear to push the government’s agenda.  These tactics have been prevalent throughout, history, of course.  By enhancing the public’s horror of nuclear annihilation, the ‘50s leaders increased Americans’ ire towards communism.


The one-sided reactions to Sputnik came from every segment of our society.  US leaders struggled to understand how the Russians could achieve such a wondrous feat.  For example, Lyndon Johnson ignored any positive aspects and worried solely about the gaps in America’s national defense.


The interviews with people on the street reflect the fears and paranoia of the era—even the renowned Walter Cronkite states many of their same views.  President Eisenhower also stumbles when asked by the press what America will do to respond to the Sputnik flight.


The propaganda on both sides increased, with Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev employing nasty language to combat American power. Both countries also fought a war of ideas that used all types of lies and bravado to gain the edge.  Khrushchev’s son appears here to defend the Russian ideals, even calling Jesus Christ “the first communist”. While that may be a silly stretch, he’s accurate that the tenets of communism are not evil.


Working from Paul Dickson’s book Sputnik: Shock of the Century, Hoffman builds the case for impending doom as the Soviets gained repeated successes. Sputnik 2 launched the dog Laika into space, which raised the ire of animal lovers everywhere. It also spawned more fire towards Eisenhower to build up America’s military industrial complex.


Editing numerous images and photographs into a cohesive story, Hoffman shows the intense pressure caused by the Russian advances. The scenes of the first major US rocket launch, Vanguard, are particularly effective, with nervous engineers licking their lips in anticipation of the big moment. Of course, victory would not occur this day. Edward R. Murrow’s serene voice describes the awful result perfectly (the rocket shut down two seconds after first-stage ignition and exploded), trouncing any possible modern interpretation.


The best moments of Sputnik Mania involve sharp montages of classic footage mixed with music, audio recollections and well-timed narration. This momentum is difficult to maintain, however, and the pace slows as the American scientists gain confidence in their endeavors.


There’s also a surprisingly abrupt happy ending, which makes this documentary seem like a mere prologue to other NASA-centric series. The military focus grows as the story progresses, losing the personal touch of reactions from people on the street. This section presents a rather hawkish view of Werner von Braun, which intrigues me when compared to his usual saintly persona. 
Alas, Hoffman’s attention strays in various directions and loses focus on the Sputnik tale.  The upbeat end leaves you feeling content, but the journey becomes less interesting along the way.  Americans’ “mania” turns more professional, and while the threat was definitely real, it’s depiction falls short of spellbinding television.


Sputnik Mania’s bonus disc provides five vintage films that show more ‘50s craziness.  The award for the strangest inclusion is “Communist Society”, an episode of a show called “The Catholic Hour”.  Here a middle-aged priest describes how evolution matches the Bible and transitions into rants about communism. Supporting his presentation are goofy animations and cardboard cut-outs, the best showing a ridiculous contrast between men living under a capitalist and communist regime.


Another tedious entry is “Yankee Go Home”, composed as a roundtable discussion between military men and George Allen —the first director of the United States Information Agency.  Allen examines Soviet events and films to counter their propaganda, but he uses shady tactics to sell his message. He also keeps looking at the ceiling, which doesn’t help.


These extra are often tedious, but they provide a fine backdrop for the events surrounding Sputnik Mania.  Cold War buffs should enjoy them, but others might want to stick to the main feature.

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Dan Heaton has written about film and music for more than 10 years for both print and web publications, including DigitallyObsessed.com and ErasingClouds.com. You can check out his current work at his blog, Public Transportation Snob (ptsnob.com). Dan earned Bachelors degrees in English and Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1998. His writing covers a wide array of genres, with a particular interest in sci-fi movies and television. He currently lives in St. Louis with his wife and toddler daughter.


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