Sputnik Mania



NEW YORK -- When the Soviets launched Sputnik in October 1957, the ramifications were political as well as scientific. America's much-trumpeted technological superiority had been overtaken.

Citizens and politicians feared that nuclear missiles were about to rain down on their heads. "Sputnik Mania," by veteran television producer David Hoffman, examines that fear, as well as America's attempt to catch up with the space-age technology of its Cold War enemy.

Appearing a little late -- Sputnik's 50th anniversary was in October -- "Sputnik Mania" probably won't do much theatrically. But the film, which is based on Paul Dickson's book "Sputnik: The Shock of the Century," should find a home on cable TV channels. It's a breezy watch, more pop historical than scientific. The main draw is the wealth of footage depicting Sputnik and its effects on American society that Hoffman has culled from old television broadcasts.

The rush by the Soviet Union and the U.S. to get their hands on Nazi ballistic technology, which was developed using concentration camp labor, would merit a documentary in itself. Hoffman wisely doesn't go into that, but starts with Sputnik's launch. The main story revolves around the public's worry that if the Russians had the ballistic know-how to launch an object into space, they could reach America with their nuclear warheads. The wonder of mankind's first foray into space soon turned into Cold War paranoia.

The array of TV clips forms a snapshot of suburban America in the 1950s. The Rocket Clubs -- science groups formed by young boys to develop rockets to aid the government -- are fascinating in their naivety. Footage of a Russian nuclear bomb test, which features animals caught in the blast, reminds you that people were right to fear ballistic technology.

The film claims that President Eisenhower was slow to develop a satellite because he thought it would start an arms race in space. A major omission is that Sputnik's developer, the maverick genius Sergei Korolev, doesn't even get a name check. The film undercuts its veracity by adding a rider saying that some clips have been used out of sequence for dramatic purposes. But this still is a serviceable piece of space history.

Balcony Releasing
History Films and Balcony Releasing present a Varied Directions production
Director: David Hoffman
Writers: David Hoffman, Paul Dickson
Based on the book by: Paul Dickson
Producers: Eric Reid, David Hoffman, John Vincent Barret
Executive producer: Jay Walker
Editor: John Vincent Barret
Liev Schreiber, Peter Thomas
Running time -- 87 minutes
No MPAA rating