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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Up Where We Belong
by Donald Levit

The timespan shorter, the theme related yet not one-to-one, and its General Curtis E. LeMay touched on only briefly as a facet of the bad-guy military mindset, Sputnik Mania does share a common, unlikely, revised hero with Errol Morris’ The Fog of War -- President Dwight D. Eisenhower -- and a second, more amazing late-entry one in Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

In this 2007-08 “Sputnik Year,” feature documentary veteran director/co-producer David Hoffman has co-written the eighty-seven Liev Schreiber-narrated minutes with author Paul Dickson, from the latter’s Sputnik: The Shock of the Century. Paralleling that shock and resultant national neurosis with those of December 7, 1941, and 9/11, publicity strains to make the first satellite relevant to students today, but the film itself is really free of such editorializing. Refreshingly, it stands back and allows the tale to be told in memorable actuality footage backed with unobtrusive period music.

In both Morris’ Academy Award winner and this film, the military comes to have its way, here glove in hand with sinister Strangelove and former Nazi wunderkind Wernher von Braun, orchestrating out of Huntsville’s Redstone Arsenal and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. But in this year of pessimism in Oscar candidates, Hoffman wraps on an up note, America’s recovery of confidence à la In the Shadow of the Moon and the victory of restraint over an aggressive military-industrial complex. Combining activity at the highest levels with “the reactions of ordinary American citizens” and popular culture of the era, Sputnik captures the brink of a Third World War and mutual annihilation, though the unspectacular approach will prove a difficult sell to young filmgoers.

Out of left field -- or an intelligence failure in the West -- fifty-one years ago, the rocket was sent up that placed “Baby Moon” Sputnik (“traveling companion”) in extra-atmospheric orbit. Soviet science’s triumph signaled humiliation for a cocky America in which the Cold War archenemy had been dismissed as backward pushers of horse-drawn ploughs. To global awe and attention, Moscow’s propaganda advertised their system as the future, opposed to a democracy mired in the past and unwilling to protect its own divided citizenry, proclaiming, for example, the artificial satellite’s flyover above Little Rock at that moment of racial confrontation at Central High.

Emphasizing then (with whatever implications one might care to draw for now), the film does not overburden itself with color interviews for assessments today, including fair, surprisingly humorous observations from Khrushchev’s son Sergei. Instead, it balances b&w contemporary reaction through, on the one hand, street-corner interviews and manifestations of mass culture such as game fads, songs, and TV shows like “Person to Person,” “Youth Wants to Know” and “Name That Tune” (contestants John Glenn and little Eddie), with, on the other, more highbrow news programming and government hearings and press conferences.

The innocence or idiocy or ignorance will bring smiles quickly sobered by the spectacle of men of good will succumbing to darker impulses. Fearing code messages in the orbiting sphere’s beeps and badgered by the push for aggressive response, rational men like Murrow, Stevenson, Huntley, Cronkite, John Daly, Senators Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson, succumbed to the moment and a questioning of national defense preparedness. Employing principles of ballistics, Communist rockets mighty enough to thrust the 184-pound object into earthorbit could be used to spy and, more chilling, deliver nuclear warheads, i.e., as Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.

Against Soviet chest-thumping, home bomb shelters, civil defense and schoolchildren drills, emerges a distrust of a Washington caught with pants down. Indeed, the President does look bewildered, uninformed, vacillating in response to public media questions. Both superpowers hurry to build further -- our “failed “Kaputnik,” “Flopnik” and “Stayputnik” followed by Explorer I in January 1958, the enemy’s “Muttnik” (dog lovers here wringing hands over Laika’s one-way ticket) -- while carrying out aboveground nuclear tests on an average of one every three days.

Prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, this now-forgotten or –ignored “Balance of Terror” gripped Americans -- Gallup Polls found sixty percent believed nuclear war around the corner, with half of us dying -- and almost allowed the generals to take charge. Only once giving in to irritation, a steady Eisenhower is determined to prevent military buildup and control, and triumphs at the last at Camp David with smiling Khrushchev, two ex-soldiers agreeing to restrict, turn from madness, save the world.

The exploration of space entrusted to NASA and not the Army, Von Braun landed as always on his feet with that civilian agency, while the Internet, cell phones, GPS and hi-def television were developed during the crisis.

Sputnik Mania organizes much material in calm consideration of an underreported hysteria. Essential lessons are here for the learning. Whether or not we are condemned to repeat the mistakes, is another matter.

(Released by Balcony Releasing; not rated by MPAA.)

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