27 March 2008


David Hoffman’s film, Sputnik Mania, has a lot to say about the collective American psyche, but does so without being heavy handed. By interpreting the narrative that it constructs, and the roles that America plays in that narrative, the viewer understands why the space race was so important to Americans. Though, the visual metaphor of phalluses being launched into the stratosphere over and over again may be more than enough explanation.

In the beginning of the film, America is represented as a geeky adolescent, whose first rocket explodes before leaving its launch pad. America’s first satellite is also criticized for weighing only thirty lbs. while the Sputnik weighed eighty. But the story of the geek’s triumph over the bully through smarts is the obvious trajectory for the film—one that it subverts in the end. Unfortunately for America, it is not quite the lovable, innocent geek you might expect from The Mighty Ducks etc. As the film shows, America had little sympathy in the eyes of the rest of the world, due to coverage of racist protests at Southern schools after Brown vs Board of Education, the decision reached three years before the launch of Sputnik. One archival film of three young, white and attractive female students trying to give rational reasons why blacks should not be allowed in their schools, was particularly disturbing. So America seems more like the kind of geek that grows up, founds a multi-million dollar software company, but is still an asshole. Russia on the other hand is portrayed as a big, silent bully, and stock footage of Khrushchev only adds to the effect, not to mention the part where they send a dog into space to die.

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s speech in which he warns Americans about the “military industrial complex,” appears in just about every political documentary that comes out these days, but in Sputnik Mania, which uses Eisenhower as its protagonist, the speech is absent, though not irrelevant. The film follows the decision making process of Eisenhower, who is pressured more and more to escalate funding and research due to fear of attack from Russian satellites. Both the military and put pressure Eisenhower, while the country experienced mass fear and paranoia. Eisenhower resisted at first, reluctant to give Russia a reason to expand their arms productions, then acquiesced to the demands of the military, giving them the funding to build the first successful rocket. But in the end, he took the responsibility away from the military and put in the hands of civilians through NASA, a truly astute move, which makes one cringe when thinking about all the presidents that have followed him, other than Carter, and I guess Ford.

On a cynical note, you can’t help but think that given control over space travel, the military would have taken it much further than NASA has, given the string of failures and bad press that has plagued NASA for as long as I can remember.

According to Elena, potential reasons not to see this film are a) you’re not American, and b) you’re a girl. She slept through a lot of it, and when I made a lot of jokes about rockets and penises afterward she said, “No wonder I was bored.”

In relationship to other documentaries reviewed on this blog, Sputnik Mania is an interesting example of a work that has no political vision, it's simply a good story. If anything, its slant is promoting peace and the pursuit of science of nuclear holocaust and irrational fear. So the film is really more about making art and telling a story than it is about trying to get across a political message, or inspire political action. And admittedly, it was a little boring. No conspiracy, or corruption, scandals. But it is an astute approach to a bizarre time in American history that has become romanticized, and sort of a worthy homage to Eisenhower.

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