"Sputnik Mania" orbits around Cold War
"Sputnik Mania" movie review: Through archival footage, expert testimony and thankfully limited use of re-enactments, documentary filmmaker David Hoffman provides a lively look back at Russia's launch of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957 and the following 18 months of Cold War panic.
Special to The Seattle Times
"Sputnik Mania," a documentary narrated by Liev Schreiber. Directed by David Hoffman, from a screenplay by Hoffman and Paul Dickson, based on the book "Sputnik: The Shock of the Century" by Dickson. 96 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. Grand Illusion, through Thursday.
Through the blurry vision of hindsight, it's easy to look back at the events of October 1957 and wonder what all the fuss was about. That's why David Hoffman's lively documentary "Sputnik Mania" is a welcomed reminder of how the first orbital satellite really was "the shock of the century."
As Hoffman chronicles the 18-month period of panic that followed Sputnik's launch, he builds a case for the redemption of President Dwight D. Eisenhower — who was notoriously unprepared for Russia's surprise success, then turned potential disaster into a golden opportunity for the peaceful pursuit of space exploration.
Launched into Earth orbit a month before Elvis Presley starred in "Jailhouse Rock," Russia's Sputnik satellite turned the space race into an urgent competition literally overnight. Just as quickly, the "military-industrial complex" (as Eisenhower called it) targeted Sputnik — armed with only a radio transmitter inside — as a Soviet threat of thermonuclear proportions. One small, spherical satellite, said hawkish U.S. military officials, was just a precursor to Russia's inevitable use of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
As he did with his excellent TV miniseries "Making Sense of the Sixties," Hoffman (with a staff of researchers) has amassed an impressive variety of archival footage to show how Sputnik fueled Cold War panic, prompting overnight trends like homemade bomb shelters and "duck and cover" classroom drills. As these events are described by actor Liev Schreiber (a skillful narrator, he's fast becoming the Richard Kiley of his generation), Hoffman's footage is sharply edited into a sometimes frightening, sometimes humorous collage of Cold War headlines, space-race milestones and setbacks, and man-on-the-street interviews with worried Americans.
Hoffman's archival footage is occasionally haphazard and repetitious, and his use of re-enactments is thankfully kept to a minimum. But as "Sputnik Mania" unfolds, what becomes increasingly apparent are the striking similarities between anti-Soviet fear-mongering in 1957-58 and present-day justifications for the war in Iraq, with two decorated former generals — "Ike" and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev — sharing center stage in a global game of truth-or-dare.
A few talking-head interviews are included, none more fascinating than Khrushchev's now-elderly son Sergei, who claims (in terms of wealth-sharing philosophy) that "Jesus Christ was the first Communist." American insights are provided by journalist Daniel Schorr, comedian Robert Klein, Eisenhower's daughter Susan and others.
While much of the same history is covered more concisely in "Sputnik Declassified" (a recent episode of "Nova," viewable online at www.pbs.org), Hoffman takes full advantage of new information, dramatically revealing how Eisenhower's wisdom prevailed. Instead of convincing America that Khrushchev was a bomb-dropping evildoer, Ike reached a private agreement with Khrushchev and quickly launched NASA as a civilian agency with peaceful intentions.
Without beating you over the head with its message (that President Bush could've followed Eisenhower's example after Sept. 11), "Sputnik Mania" is ultimately about the heroic avoidance of World War III.
Jeff Shannon: firstname.lastname@example.org
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