Sputnik Mania (2007) – Documentary Retroview

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Timed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of America’s successful moon shot, the spectacular Apollo 11 documentary is a reminder not only that humans are capable of making miracles happen, but also of some of the less celebratory aspects of the USA vs USSR race to space. The challenge to beat the Soviets to the moon, the pride in getting there first and planting the US flag on the moon’s surface were part and parcel of the cold war between two mega powers that were often on the brink of striking out to destroy each other and — since nuclear bombs were the weapons of choice — much of the rest of the world as well.

In 1969, as astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, said “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” and planted Old Glory, the world watched in awe, but there was still a global ambiance of fear.

That the Cold War (1947-1991) and the Race to Space (1955-1975) overlapped and impacted each other is clearly illustrated in Sputnik Mania, another informative and compelling documentary that was released in 2007, but is still an interesting source of information today, as we face other global fears.

Based on Paul Dickenson’s book Sputnik: The Shock of the Century, and directed by David Hoffman, Sputnik Mania examines how the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik in October, 1957, initiated the international race to space, instigated America’s emphasis on developing and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and fomented a sort of ongoing political and social paranoia in the American psyche.

A Matter of National Interest

At first, the USSR’s launch the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth was appreciated as a phenomenal scientific accomplishment, but worldwide euphoria about the achievement didn’t last long. In the US, a different spin was put on the orbiting satellite. Sputnik Mania opens with a quote from Lyndon Baines Johnson (then the senior Senator from Texas): “In the eyes of the world, first in space means first period. Second in space means second in everything.”

It was the height of the Cold War and American awe of the Soviet’s Sputnik soon turned to terror. The US government–including President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon Baines Johnson–interpreted the Soviet success as a blow to America’s preeminence as a world leader, and as an imminent threat to the American way of life.

The incendiary media did little to quell the American public’s speculative fears that the Soviets were capable and had the will to raid the US from the skies, dropping nuclear bombs on our civic centers and bringing on ‘nuclear holocaust.’ For defense and retaliation, the military developed a wide range of long range weapons of mass destruction–intercontinental ballistic missiles–and positioned them near key cities across the nation. Emergency evacuation plans were put into place, public and private bomb shelters were constructed, school children were put through the traumatic paces of air raid drills and taught to breathe through gas masks, dinner conversations about how to survive attack were commonplace, as were sermons about withstanding atheist tendencies emanating from the communist Soviet Union.

Caution On The Brink of Disaster

Apparently the US had several satellites nearly ready for deployment. It’s interesting that President Eisenhower was cautious about launching the satellite closest to ready–because it was being developed by the military. Ike was worried the Soviets would see its launch as an aggression.

When the US successfully launched Vanguard, American confidence was somewhat restored. And, as we know from our resent day perspective, the space race was eventually won by the US with the Apollo 11 moon landing.

The US vs. USSR race to dominate space exploration created excellent educational opportunities for Americans, but it was also paralleled by intensive development and stockpiling of intercontinental ballistic missiles. These were installed in hidden lofts around American cities to defend against and/or retaliate for projected Soviet airborne aggressions.

To delve into and explore the American public’s Cold War mind set, Sputnik Mania presents a wide range of historical black and white archival news footage–some of which hasn’t been seen on screen for decades, if ever. Included are press conferences and interviews with government officials, religious leaders, policy makers and scientists. There are clips of American men, women and children, Soviet scientists and politicos commenting on current events and expressing their expectations. The archival footage is fascinating.

A Balanced View

Like the enlightening The Fog of War and other historical documentaries, Sputnik Mania reveals how one historic event can lead to a series of decisions that trigger a chain of events that brings the world to the brink of disaster. In this instance, grandstanding politicians, religious zealots and manipulative media whipped the American populace into a state of paralyzing paranoia that almost exploded into overt conflict.

Of course, documentaries are media presentations, too. It’s always possible that a filmmaker has an agenda and is putting forth personal opinion as fact. But, not so in Sputnik Mania. David Hoffman’s presentation is thoroughly researched and well-balanced, resukting in the delivery of unfiltered information that allows you to form your own opinions. Hoffman is quite a compellingly storyteller, and narrator Liev Schreiber’s delivery is dramatic and convincing, but the script and its delivery never insinuate personal opinions or conclusions.

The fear and paranoia Americans felt during the Cold War era are not entirely unlike the present day American mind set, as brought about by the events of 9/11 and issues with our current leadership. Sputnik Mania plays with an amazing resonance.


Title: Sputnik Mania
Directors: David Hoffman
Release Date: June 1, 2007
Running Time: 87 mins.
Language: English
Production Country: USA
Production Company: Varied Directions
Distribution Company: Balcony Releasing

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