For Gen-X babies, the Cold War scenario of Sputnik Mania must seem like Bizarro World. The supposedly backward Russkies control the heavens; a war-hero president argues against military overspending and the arms race; and all hope for America’s prestige rides on the shoulders of Hitler’s space ace—the man who sent V-2 rockets screaming across the London sky. It’s all true, though, and David Hoffman’s kaleidoscopic documentary shows how this up-is-down world sprang into existence from one event: the October 4, 1957, launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik—an ungainly four-pronged basketball of an object that upended the hierarchy of superpowers, officially launched the Space Age, and triggered a panic that shook America from Washington to Wall Street.
“Second in space is second in everything,” thundered LBJ, pleased not at all to see Soviet hardware fouling his Texas skies. Worse, while footage of the Soviets’ unthinkable high-tech superiority captivated the globe, America was tarred with images of racist hatred emanating from forcibly desegregated Arkansas—clips that look today like transmissions from the Planet of the Apes. Restoring America’s self-esteem, averting the escalation in cataclysmic new H-bombs, and playing bluff poker with ICBMs—it was a challenge even for the can-do optimism of the ’50s, and it makes for a sometimes startlingly dark tale.
With Liev Schreiber’s AV-club narration holding together the archival deluge, Hoffman follows President Eisenhower from public failure to global triumph—culminating in, of all things, the unlikely bull’s-eye of an otherworldly Christmas message. While the film relies admirably on montage rather than talking heads, the period footage is sometimes used as indiscriminately as clip art. But the doc, though occasionally dry, remains compelling. Forget the now-retro futurism: When Ike chides Congress that the cost of one bomber could build 30 brick schools, you’re truly in the realm of science fiction.