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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Sputnik Mania
Sputnik Mania
Other // Unrated // January 20, 2008
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted February 7, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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P R I N T
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The Movie:
Those of us raised in the 1960s and 1970s may not remember Sputnik Mania itself, but we certainly grew up in the backsplash created by the launch of the first satellite in October 1957. I still remember quite distinctly being taken to my preschool's basement bomb shelter on regular "duck and cover" drills, which slowly gave way as the 1970s dawned to a more sanguine reaction to potential nuclear holocaust. For those who either lament or applaud a worldwide perception that the United States has, over the past few years, lost a bit of its "mojo," Sputnik Mania is an apt reminder that even that perception is something the world has been through before. When the Soviets launched Sputnik I and II over a couple of months in late 1957, doomsdayers were proclaiming the end of the U.S.A. Sound familiar?



Sputnik Mania is an amazingly well orchestrated bunch of vintage newsreels, PSAs and propaganda films (both US and Soviet) which gives a nice contemporary spin on world shaking events. Up until late 1957, Westerners were apt to define their former World War II Soviet allies as mere peasants, unable to even manufacture a working refrigerator. When the Soviets then managed to get an unheard of payload into space, a payload which, not so coincidentally, proved that they could deliver a nuclear armed missile to the American mainland, the world was, no pun intended, up in arms.



The documentary takes us on a riveting journey through American paranoia, Soviet pride and worldwide consternation over this unexpected dawn of the space age. Along the way we're shown some now long forgotten tidbits, including the global protests over the death from lack of oxygen of first dog in space Laika, as well as the closing of the New York Stock Exchange when the Soviets' second Sputnik launch threatened to derail the American economy, at least for a day or two. What current analysts of our contemporary political climate may find amusing, or even incredible, is the fact that way back in 1957 it was the Democrats insisting on a more robust national defense, whatever the cost, while a Republican President kept insisting just as vociferously that the defense budget didn't need any expansion. It's like a trip through the Looking Glass or a real-life version of Superman's Bizarro World to those of us raised on a generation of Republican Hawks and Democratic Doves.



It's perhaps also just a little funny that the American powers that be quickly decided, after the legendary failure of the first Vanguard, the initial attempt to launch a U.S. satellite, that the exploration of space should be for "peaceful means." Be that as it may, it ultimately led Ike to propose NASA, which supposedly removed the space race from military hands. In fact, Sputnik Mania makes a point of highlighting how both Eisenhower and Khrushchev had to fight off their own armed forces and their attempt to militarize outer space. There were actual American plans to fire armed soldiers in small capsules spaceward, so that they could then land on foreign soil and take the battle right to the enemy from the sky. It may seem surreal now, but Sputnik Mania's excellent use of archival footage shows quite conclusively that the world was really on the brink of a major, probably nuclear, conflict for about a year circa 1957-58.



What's also made clear is how strangely isolated America and the USSR were from each other back then. Each was convinced the other was out only for nefarious ends, and each responded with a level of paranoia that only helped create self-fulfilling prophecies on both sides. It's more than a little ironic that the promulgation of satellites has ultimately helped make the world a smaller, more cohesive whole, where seemingly no one is isolated from anyone else. That hopefully will be Sputnik's lasting legacy for mankind.






The DVD


Video:
Guess what? You're not going to get my patented History Channel DVD rant about unenhanced letterboxed transfers. Perhaps because this was an independent production by filmmaker David Hoffman, who utilizes archival footage almost exclusively (there are a few contemporary interview segments, all quite brief), we're instead given a nice 1.33:1 image that is as good as the source material. Unfortunately, that's pretty bad at times, with damage, abrasion, and washing out. However strange as it may sound, however, that only lends the history being depicted more veracity. The contemporary interview segments are all sharp as a tack with excellent color. Hoffman chooses to use slow motion in some of the archival footage, which creates some strange visual anomalies like fluttering occasionally.




Sound:
I had real problems with the mix of this piece. "Background" music, which is omnipresent, is frequently mixed so high that narrator Liev Schreiber simply can't be heard, and voice actors portraying various historical figures are similarly just buried in the mix. Unfortunately there are no subtitles to help clarify things.





Extras:
A second disc of vintage PSAs and newsreels, from which Hoffman culls short snippets for the main documentary, are included, and they all are fascinating, if at times awfully high in camp value. Included are "Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow," which unironically espouses the advantages of communities working together to make it through nuclear winter (that's communities, not communes, you pinko radicals); "Yankee Go Home," a seriously deadpan look at Russian propaganda; "Communist Society," in which a Catholic priest lectures us about Godless Soviets; "Laica," a short on the first dog in space; and "Missles, Missles, Missles," which deals with--missles.




Final Thoughts:
Sputnik Mania is a whirlwind tour through a time of rapid scientific advances mixed with an almost atavistic lizard-brain fear reaction from the bulk of mankind. Incessantly fascinating, with an expert assemblage of source material, it is Highly Recommended.


____________________________________________
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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