According to Sputnik Mania, the 1957 launch of the USSR’s Sputnik 1 satellite resulted in a year of near-total panic and depression for the United States, which—after a fleeting few days of being impressed by this monumental achievement—quickly viewed the device as both a potential threat to national security and a blow to its pride. This analysis is, as a whole, true, but the way director David Hoffman makes his case certainly doesn’t do it any favors. To his credit, the documentarian (basing his film on co-screenwriter Paul Dickson’s book The Shock of the Century) largely substitutes typical talking-head interviews (most speakers are heard but not seen) with nonstop, effectively engrossing archival footage culled from news broadcasts, home movies, propaganda flicks, and stock clips from TVs and films. Moreover, an interview with Khrushchev’s son that details the Soviet state of mind at the time, as well as a revelation about the secret agreement between Eisenhower and Khrushchev that helped dampen calls from both countries’ military wings to escalate missile production, bring added dimension to the tale. Yet from an overblown score and narration (by Liev Schreiber and Peter Thomas) that’s fond of sweeping generalizations, to a Star Wars-ish title sequence that ends with the film’s moniker boasting flames in each letter, there’s an inescapable sense that Hoffman is puffing up the era’s tense atmosphere in an effort to generate more gripping drama. The result, alas, is the polar opposite. By attempting to cast this fascinating story about a key national (and global) event—one that helped spur space exploration and expand the Cold War arms race—as virtually unparalleled in terms of historical importance, as well as one that put us on the very-very-brink of nuclear holocaust, the film winds up somewhat draining the story of its inherent import. Or to put it another way, Sputnik Mania is so obsessed with delivering a story about “mania” through overcooked narrative and aesthetic means that one ultimately feels as manipulated as enlightened.
- Balcony Releasing
- 87 min
- David Hoffman
- David Hoffman, Paul Dickson
- Liev Schreiber, Peter Thomas
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