October 4, 1957: Sputnik launches. Pop culture promptly finds a new symbol for the Cold War, fear of Soviet domination, the Space Age, and lord knows what else. Cultural shorthand takes over, making Sputnik the thing that humiliated America and little else; eventually, what with our faulty public schools and sense of history, trying to tell the kids what it was was like explaining “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” or “Howdy Doody”. Time to restore our popular mythology.
That’s at least one justification for Sputnik Mania, a drably educational documentary by David Hoffman. Arguably, Paul Dickson’s book didn’t really need to be filled-out on-screen—but it did, because Sputnik was one of the first ’50s cultural flashpoints to hit when a TV was finally in every room, give or take.
Fleshed out with excellent archival footage, Sputnik Mania organizes itself on a timeline with Sputnik as the center point: everything is dated as a countdown to or a movement away from it. Before, America sat, godly and serene under Eisenhower. Then the satellite launched, and everything changed: first, humanity celebrated our collective achievement. Then the bomb-throwing started, at least rhetorically: were the godless Russkies launching ICBMs up into space, preparing to destroy all and sundry with powerful rockets? Senators fulminated in sci-fi rhetoric, none more than LBJ—out on his Texas ranch, the stars suddenly seemed ominously close. The US tried to respond with Vantage—the kind of embarrassing failure NASA would have to wait ’til Challenger to best. Meanwhile, the USSR launched Laika into space, turning the previously geo-politically indifferent into fervent anti-Soviet crusaders—for the sake of the dog.
As the frenzy rises, Hoffman makes good with the nuclear kitsch—at times, his movie seems to be less about Sputnik and more of an Atomic Cafe redux. Liev Schreiber’s sober narration counters the fear-mongering and ignorance of the archival clips: there’s plenty of man-on-the-street footage of concerned businessmen wondering if they’ll soon be subservient to the dastardly Soviets. Eventually, things righted themselves with John Glenn, but ultimately the film ends up—oddly enough—as a paean to Dwight Eisenhower. Throughout the film, press conference footage of an increasingly defensive Eisenhower keeps recurring—Ike explaining there’s no evidence of a threat, Ike chiding Congress for wanting to spend money on expensive toys instead of education, etc. Ike, it’s implied, is the president who sifted and weighed evidence before jumping into hasty conflicts, but that’s as far as the film goes in drawing contemporary parallels. This is narrative history, not the allegorical-parallel kind. Attempts to draw Khrushchev as Eisenhower’s equally well-intentioned doppelganger, however, are seriously ill-advised—especially when the only person to vouch for Khrushchev is his son. This movie’s understanding of US politics is, understandably, much stronger than its grasp of Soviet history—which makes sense, because this is about the iconographic significance of Sputnik to America, not to its country of origin.
Hoffman serves up a fine sampling of the news and pop culture Sputnik sparked (look forward to Ray Sawyer’s “Rockin’ Satellite,” possibly one of the dumbest novelty songs I’ve ever heard); he never quite breaks away from the Ken Burns model, but it’s good that someone’s put all this stuff in one place. Those pre-disposed to be interested will be, those who don’t wont—though you still won’t be able to see how the film ends: with Eisenhower launching the world’s first satellite broadcast of sorts, basically inventing communications technology for the next 50 years. In other words, Sputnik Mania is a love letter to communication technology.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Reeler, Nerve, and, oddly enough, Salt Lake City Weekly.