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Movie Review

The harrowing era that Sputnik launched

Archival images in 'Sputnik Mania' recall the late 1950s as they were reported on radio, television, and in newspapers. Archival images in "Sputnik Mania" recall the late 1950s as they were reported on radio, television, and in newspapers.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / June 13, 2008

It's not a bad moment for 1957. The new "Indiana Jones" movie has leaped ahead to the nuclear age to dip its toe in paranoia and talk of communism before it goes looking for El Dorado's treasure. And a more complete and completely harrowing treatment of the era is available in David Hoffman's documentary "Sputnik Mania," which opens today at the Coolidge.

The movie reconstructs the Cold War nightmare that flared up after the Soviet Union launched its first Sputnik satellite, igniting a wave of fear in America for its safety and insecurity about its space program. The film charts the year the two countries spent locked in a sprint to prepare to annihilate each other.

The film's early moments threaten a kind of tutorial classroom exercise. Liev Schreiber narrates the film, and if he tires of acting, he might consider a career in planetarium voice-over work. You fear the approach of talking heads - there's NPR's soothsayer Daniel Schorr; here comes Nikita Khrushchev's son Sergei. But for an hour at least they're kept to a minimum. Instead, Hoffman and his editor, John Vincent Barrett, put tons of old radio and TV broadcasts and archival imagery to work - news headlines, military film of bombing tests, great melodramatic stock montages (scientists in headphones, men cranking knobs and crinkling their noses; people standing around panels; men and women looking worriedly up at the skies) - to conjure the terrible excitement of the time. At its most effective, it's a gripping historical thriller that might leave Tom Clancy nibbling his fingernails. (The movie's source material is actually "Sputnik: The Shock of the Century" by Paul Dickson, who also shows up.)

But the film's tone is dynamic enough to find the bleak comedy in the launch of Sputnik II, starring Laika the stray dog that seduced the world into praying for its safe return.

Once the Russians make it clear that the dog is pretty much doomed (she lasted a few hours until the stress and heat did her in), the absurdity reaches a fever pitch. In one clip a proto-PETA activist decrying Laika's inhumane treatment says the launch was "a symbol of the torture the animal world must go through."

The film zeroes in on Dwight Eisenhower, whose presidency was under strain. He was completely ready to stop communism's march. But his military background made him reluctant to go completely hawkish. He didn't want to scare the country with an arms race, going so far as to give a speech insisting that spending on defense is a waste when people are hungry. While Eisenhower was pushing for level heads and calm, the country was hearing alarms and rooting for the government to launch something quick. Schools started rocket clubs. The Boy Scouts created a merit badge for space.

This all feels like something tailor-made for Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer - "The Rockets' Red Glare" or something awful like that. Hoffman's movie would be the soberer affair. Even so, "Sputnik Mania" plays, discreetly, like a negative love story between superpowers. Sure they moved on to other enemies, but they still haven't gotten over each other.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movienation.

Sputnik Mania

Directed by: David Hoffman

Written by: Hoffman and Paul Dickson, adapted from Paul Dickson's book "Sputnik: The Shock of the Century"

At: Coolidge Corner

Running time: 85 minutes

Unrated

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