Sputnik Mania

2008, Movie, NR, 90 mins


It was really no bigger than a beach ball, weighed about as much as a full-grown man and it beeped. And aside from transmitting a radio signal and accidentally opening a few automatic garage doors, it didn't really do anything except orbit the globe once every 96 minutes. But the gleaming Sputnik I, launched by the Russians on October 4, 1957, just as the Cold War was reaching a deep freeze, was the first artificial Earth satellite -- a "man-made moon" -- and it scared the pants off of a napping United States still flush with a post-WWII sense superiority. It also announced the beginning of the Space Age way ahead of schedule, and the Soviets, not the Americans, had ushered it in. Half a century on, it's hard to grasp the sense of shock, wonder and terror Sputnik caused -- NASA official Scott Hubbard describes its launch as one of those rare moments in history when in an instant "all of your thought processes changed" -- but David Hoffman's sharp documentary recaptures quite a bit of its impact. Based on Paul Dickson's entertaining book Sputnik: The Shock of the Century and produced to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Sputnik launch (there would be four others; the second carried the dog Laika), Hoffman's book traces the reaction of a stunned nation, the panic that ensued and dawning realization that whatever the Soviets had used to launch that shiny silver beach ball could also be used to lob a long-range ballistic missile at the U.S. (and Khrushchev's H-bomb tests weren't doing anything to allay Western fears). Hoffman also relates how a nation turned against its president when, instead of shouting back at the Soviet premier, Eisenhower urged caution and restraint, lest the precipitous launching of a U.S. missile turn the space race into an arms race -- wise words a panicked nation didn't want to hear. The film is filled with contemporaneous personal reminiscences, memoirs from the likes of Lyndon Johnson, and news reports -- as well as a wealth of wonderful archival footage, including Marine Corps pilot John Glenn Jr. appearing on Name that Tune three hours after Sputnik launched, the spectacular launch-pad failure of the Vanguard satellite at Cape Canaveral, newsreel of a "dead" A-bomb that accidentally fell over a small South Carolina town and vintage animation of a what a war in space might look like when "race for space" inevitably became "conquest of space" in the American imagination. And while Hoffman does take a quick look at satellite-inspired hairdos and plays a snippet of rocket-billy rock-and-roll, his film avoids reveling in Cold War kitsch in favor of a serious look one of the most important -- and frightening -- moments in human history. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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