Movie Review: 'Sputnik Mania' Grips a Nation
A crowd gazes upon one of seven Sputniks produced by the Soviet Union.
Credit: History Films/Balcony Releasing

When the Soviets launched the first manmade satellite ever into space on Oct. 4, 1957, a wave of shock and awe swept the United States and the world. Religious leaders predicted the second coming of Christ, military leaders warned darkly of enemy propaganda and future threats, and ordinary Americans found themselves questioning both their nation?s standing in the world and their personal safety in daily life.

David Hoffman?s documentary film brilliantly captures the ?Sputnik Mania? that seized the United States at the start of the Space Age. Modern viewers can instantly relate to the uncertainty visible on American faces from the era, and the film becomes a reminder of how a single event can rattle the national psyche.

Hoffman draws on a treasure trove of news broadcasts, government reels, commercials, and some previously unseen or classified footage to tell Sputnik?s story. At the time, NBC News called Sputnik ?the most important story of the century,? and the media flooded radio and television with wild speculations about what the satellite could do. Looking back on the near-hysteria provides equal parts laughter and unease.

Some experts thought that satellite would take control of the airwaves and broadcast Communist propaganda directly into American homes, while others predicted the threat of nuclear bombs dropped from space. Sputnik?s launch not only ramped up on the arms race on both sides of the Cold War, but also raised the threat of militarizing space just as space exploration had begun ? echoing current concerns regarding a space arms race with China.

Hoffman also dives gleefully into the other side of Sputnik mania, when a sense of exuberance about the new space frontier transformed much of American pop culture. Teens grooved to satellite-inspired songs, and a Nobel Prize laureate wryly recalled how several friends ended up missing fingers due to their hazardous hobbies in amateur rocket clubs.

The film concludes just a year after Sputnik?s launch with President Eisenhower?s decision to create a civilian, not military, space agency called NASA in 1958. The film's hopeful end-note for the peaceful exploration of space coincides with NASA?s celebration of its 50th anniversary this year.

?Sputnik Mania? opened on March 14, 2008 at the IFC Center in New York City for a two-week run.

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