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Sputnik Mania

Sputnik Mania

Director: David Hoffman, Liev Schreiber, Gene Banucci, Jay Barbee

Cast: David Hoffman, Liev Schreiber, Gene Banucci, Jay Barbee

Fifty years after the Soviet Union made history by launching Sputnik into space, the reverberations of that historical event are still echoing around the world. Produced to coincide with the 50th anniversary of this defining moment in human history, this documentary from filmmaker David Hoffman draws on lost footage and informative interviews to detail the


Fifty years after the Soviet Union made history by launching Sputnik into space, the reverberations of that historical event are still echoing around the world. Produced to coincide with the 50th anniversary of this defining moment in human history, this documentary from filmmaker David Hoffman draws on lost footage and informative interviews to detail the remarkable story surrounding the launch of Sputnik, as well as the incredible events that unfolded in America the following year. While American enthusiasm over this technological breakthrough was at first palpable, that excitement quickly turned to dread as politicians and the media pointed out that the same rocket used to propel Sputnik into space could have just as easily been outfitted with a nuclear warhead and used to launch a devastating war against the United States. The following year, tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States reached an all-time high, effectively propelling the Cold War into overdrive. With bomb shelters being built, nuclear testing lighting up the atmosphere every three days, and then-senator Lyndon B. Johnson comparing the launch of Sputnik to another Pearl Harbor, it's no wonder that folks began to get so fatalistic. In this film, Hoffman explores the tenuous first steps into the modern age, the positive and negative effects of those steps on international relations, and the staunch determination of Americans to always be the first and the best.

Editorial Reviews

All Movie Guide - Bruce Eder
At first glance, Sputnik Mania seems somewhat similar to The Atomic Cafe (1982), offering a frequently humorous, eye-opening, and sobering look at 1950s America, its fears, and its political delusions. But that earlier movie -- fine as it was -- at some level functioned as a snarky and highly ideological laugh-fest over '50s Americana, with some more-than-implied barbs at the contemporary Reagan administration's confrontational nuclear policy; and as a consequence, it is as dated today as the very public service programming from the 1950s that it utilized 30 years on. David Hoffman's Sputnik Mania, by contrast, is much more finely nuanced, not aimed at one party or serving as a veiled critique of one administration, instead offering a much wider critique of America's general political culture, and establishing implied parallels between then and now that are highly relevant to our post-9/11 world, but not limited to any one president or political party. Hoffman, using Paul Dickson's book Sputnik: The Shock of the Century as his guide and model, has filled his movie with revelations about contemporaneous events, starting with the nearly simultaneous launch of Sputnik and the school desegregation battle in Little Rock, AR, that are seldom (if ever) taught in context with each other in history classes -- and there ended up being a relationship between the two events, even more so outside of the United States than within our borders. Another major revelation to 21st century audiences mentioned here (but not covered in quite enough detail) is the accidental dropping of an unactivated nuclear weapon from an Air Force plane on rural South Carolina -- this is another event that is never covered in the history books that most students have access to, and it just rolls off the screen, like so many of the surprises here. But the real revelations of this movie concern our political culture, and some highly revelatory insights into the roles that President Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev played, both in the perceptions of the time and the behind-the-scenes reality. In the decades since the launch of Sputnik, and the Little Rock crisis, Eisenhower has usually been presented as reacting too passively and slowly -- not pushing an all-out missile program in response to the former and not sending federal troops in early enough in reaction to the latter. In point of fact, Eisenhower -- who came from an era of much more circumspect use of presidential authority than we know today -- did not embrace the cause of civil rights, and didn't respond to the Little Rock crisis until the governor of Arkansas fomented what amounted to an insurrection against the authority of the federal courts. But when he reacted, it was with decisive force, and his restraint up to that point gave his intervention that much greater moral authority in the eyes of most onlookers. In the case of the Sputnik launch, Eisenhower, as we now see from the footage and narrative here, kept his head and maintained his focus on the important goals -- maintaining American security and world peace -- while others, including Senator Lyndon Johnson, Senator Hubert Humphrey, Governor Adlai Stevenson, and House Speaker Sam Rayburn, were busy ratcheting up the mood of panic. What's more, in many instances the saber-rattling rhetoric that we see coming from these others appears to be generated more in the cause of scoring political points against Eisenhower than participating in any serious political debate or discourse. Another revelation here concerns the role of Werner Von Braun, the one-time Nazi-era German rocket expert who was, by then, employed by our government's missile program. Von Braun helped write a lot of the histories of the early missile program, which were highly critical of Eisenhower for not doing enough to further the technological advance of our rockets. However, as we now see, Von Braun had a personal and militaristic agenda of his own that ran counter to Eisenhower's larger goal, which was to defuse the tensions pushing us to a war-footing -- the renowned scientist saw missile funding as a way of achieving vindication of his Nazi-tainted past, and power of a kind that he had been cut off from since 1945, whereas the president was functioning as the leader of the free world and, increasingly, with the awareness that the world was teetering toward war with the convergence of scientists, the military, and industry, amid the growing panic over Soviet satellites. The other great hero, besides Eisenhower, in Hoffman's film, is Nikita Kruschev, who is represented directly by newsreel footage and by proxy through his professor son Sergei, who gives an eloquent account of the Soviet point-of-view. Ever since his fall from power in the early '60s, Kruschev has faded into the background in terms of his significance, as well as the perceptions of most Americans. What we see in this movie is a man caught between powerful political forces of his own; if anything, the post-World War II Soviet political culture was more obsessed with security than that of the West, and its military found American moves around the world to be as threatening as the American military found those of Soviet forces. Kruschev, as we now see, was able to resist the worst impulses of his military planners and commanders, in pursuit of two larger goals that were parallel to those of Eisenhower -- Soviet security and world peace. The final section of the movie, which covers almost exactly one year in the history of the world, is a crowning achievement in terms of justifiable optimism, arising out of a generally horrendous series of events, missteps, and irresponsible rabble-rousing, often by senators and future presidents whose names have become legend in our political culture. Hoffman achieves this all seamlessly, and with a great deal of humor, even as we see a string of sobering (and unsettling) moments of political demagoguery at work, from a lot of names that are generally respected in our history books. There is some manipulation of the timeline, concerning certain popular-culture references and images, for the sake of narrative flow, but that doesn't detract from the legitimacy of the film or its impact, which is considerable; and despite the fact that most of the images involved come from television (with some newsreel material as well), it ought to be seen on the big screen for its greatest impact. Eisenhower and Kruschev certainly fill that larger canvas, along with the technological footage, and it is fascinating to see the political pettiness and rabble-rousing of men like Johnson and Humphrey blown up to this size. Hoffman has found the proper scale for his subject, and in doing so has also linked it, by implication, to the kind of irresponsible rhetoric still being spouted in the wake of 9/11, about American security and trading in our own self-righteousness. The only unsettling side of that implication is the real sense that the world lacks any wiser, cooler heads, in the mold of an Eisenhower or a Kruschev, to dial back the panic and arrive at a peaceful resolution. But the fault of our leadership is no reflection the merits of Sputnik Mania -- it should be seen and savored, and the only thing "wrong" with it is that it wasn't twice as long, because Hoffman is deft enough in his editing and pacing, and his subject important and wide-ranging enough that another 90 minutes like this would have been fully enjoyable.

Product Details

Release Date:
Original Release:
A&E Home Video

Special Features

Closed Caption; Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow; Yankee Go Home; Communist Society; Laica; Missiles, Missiles, Missiles

Cast & Crew

Performance Credits
Liev Schreiber Narrator
Gene Banucci Participant
Jay Barbee Participant
Paul Dickson Participant
Susan Eisenhower Participant
Tom Fleming Participant
Eileen Galloway Participant
Homer H. Hickam Participant
Scott Hubbard Participant
Sergei Khrushchev Participant
Llewellyn King Participant
Robert Klein Participant
John Logsdon Participant
Mike Mullane Participant
Douglas Osheroff Participant
Richard Rhodes Participant
Roald Sagdeev Participant
Daniel Schorr Participant
John Williams Participant
Peter Thomas Voice Only
Dan Bernard Voice Only
Tracy Casimiro Voice Only
Alex Chuiko Voice Only
Charley Darlin Voice Only
Alex Endy Voice Only
Denis Fontaine Voice Only
Tavia Gilbert Voice Only
Ron Giroux Voice Only
Alex Gershenson Voice Only
Lucy Gowan Voice Only
Heeth Grantham Voice Only
Bruce McCoy Voice Only
Pam McCoy Voice Only
Kate Moon Voice Only
Ken Main Voice Only
Evan Geist Voice Only
Kojima Gray Voice Only
William King Voice Only
Michael Hutchins Voice Only
Alam McLucas Voice Only
Michael Nardelli Voice Only
Killian Pohl Voice Only
Jed Rauscher Voice Only
Jaimie Schwartz Voice Only
Yarek Semich Voice Only
Kenneth Topham Voice Only
Randy Visser Voice Only
Lisa Wolfinger Voice Only
Kirk Wolfinger Voice Only
Jameson Jendreas Voice Only
Jake Beal Voice Only
Ian Pugh Voice Only
Jacob Saxon Voice Only

Technical Credits
David Hoffman Director,Producer,Screenwriter
John Vincent Barrett Editor,Producer
Paul Dickson Screenwriter
Greg Ephraim Cinematographer
David McKillop Executive Producer
Lindsey Palatino Screenwriter
Eric A. Reid Producer
Irina Sanchez Translator
Jay Walker Executive Producer

Scene Index

Disc #1 -- Sputnik Mania
1. Introduction [4:41]
2. Whole World Watching [8:56]
3. Worst Fears Realized [8:27]
4. War of Ideals [11:29]
5. Space Dog [6:11]
6. America Responds [5:02]
7. Oh, What a Flopnik! [7:41]
8. Finally in the Race [8:23]
9. Balance of Terror [11:44]
10. Tensions Climax [6:24]
11. A Peaceful Space [5:58]
12. Credits [1:52]


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