Sputnik Mania

"Excellent"

Sputnik Mania Review


On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union cold-cocked a smug and complacent United States by firing a large ball with four jutting antennae into space, where the contraption began orbiting the earth as the first radio satellite. This new planet the Russians called Sputnik, a 1957 miracle that science fiction writer and techno-guru Arthur C. Clarke called "one of the greatest scientific moments in human history."

Commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Sputnik launch, documentarian David Hoffman (Making Sense of the Sixties) examines the tangled tale of Sputnik as a scientific hallmark, cultural phenomenon and political hot potato in his nifty and breezy Sputnik Mania, based on the book The Shock of the Century, by Paul Dickson. Enlisting retro clips, absurd popular tunes, and contemporary talking heads, Hoffman steers us on an entertaining and informative magic carpet ride of a bygone era of simplistic thinking, political posturing, universal paranoia, and nationalistic pissing contests, a time not too far different from our own blighted epoch. As Hoffman engages in a frisky and quaint montage, the journey also belies a disturbing fifties subtext of how scientific discoveries are requisitioned by tub-thumping politicos and military hatchet men for earthbound quests of flag-waving xenophobia and Cold War grandstanding, fanning the flames of fear -- a past now present once again in the current mantra of preemptive wars and war on terror jargon.

Sputnik Mania owes its style to an amalgam of The Atomic Cafe and experimental filmmaker Bruce Connor, the stepped down motion of Hoffman's clips creating an inner, religious tension that is amplified by chosen pronouncements by the likes of Time magazine (calling Sputnik "a devastating blow to the United States") and Presidential wannabe Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson ("In the eyes of the world, first in space means first, period; second in space is second in everything.").

Hoffman expertly conveys with quotes, newsreel footage, and television kinescopes (future astronaut John Glenn is seen appearing on Name That Tune with child star Eddie Hodges declaring Sputnik "out of this world") how the initial joy of the Sputnik achievement was quickly repositioned by the United States military as being a threat to the American way of life and the next weapons platform. This, as Hoffman shows, rapidly degenerated into a paranoia-laced arms race with the Soviet Union, an insane Road To Annihilation perfectly encapsulated in Dr. Strangelove, as Peter Bull's Russian ambassador speaks about the Russians' fear of "a Doomsday Gap."

The most lighthearted moments of the film (which, of course, led ultimately to the mad arms buildup) concern the United States' accelerated efforts to top Russia in space with Vanguard satellites that had the propensity to explode on the launching pad (dubbed by various sources in the film as "Flopnik" and Kaputnik") and the hapless and helpless Russian dog Laika on Sputnik II which put the Soviet Union in hot water with animal rights groups when it was revealed that the dog would die in space.

Sputnik Mania reminds us that there was a time in the past when world leaders had morality and values, as Hoffman examines how both Eisenhower and Khrushchev battled the jingoist zeitgeist to wrestle the reins of power back from the politicians and the military and place the space program back into the hands of the scientists. As Arthur C. Clarke would later remark about the Sputnik era, "I hope that nations can at last see better reasons for exploring space and that future decisions would be informed by intelligence and reason, not the macho-nationalism that fueled the early space race."

Catch!



Facts and Figures

Production compaines: Varied Directions International

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5

Cast & Crew

Director: David Hoffman

Producer: David Hoffman, Eric Reid, Joseph Barrett

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