A Matter of National Interest
It was the height of the Cold War and American awe of the Soviet's Sputnik soon turned to terror. The US government--including President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon Baines Johnson--interpreted the Soviet success as a blow to America's preeminence as a world leader, and as an imminent threat to the American way of life. The incendiary media did little to quell the American public's speculative fears that the Soviets were capable and had the will to raid the US from the skies, dropping nuclear bombs on our civic centers and bringing on 'nuclear holocaust.' For defense and retaliation, the military developed a wide range of long range weapons of mass destruction--intercontinental ballistic missiles--and positioned them near key cities across the nation. Emergency evacuation plans were put into place, public and private bomb shelters were constructed, school children were put through the traumatic paces of air raid drills and taught to breathe through gas masks, dinner conversations about how to survive attack were commonplace, as were sermons about withstanding atheist tendencies emanating from the communist Soviet Union.
Caution On The Brink of Disaster
When the US launched Vanguard, American confidence was somewhat restored. Eventually, the space race was won by the US, when American astronauts were the first to walk on the moon--in a series of space shots that are brilliantly chronicled in another recent documentary, In The Shadow of the Moon.
The US vs. USSR race to dominate space exploration created excellent educational opportunities for Americans, but it was also paralleled by intensive development and stockpiling of intercontinental ballistic missiles. These were installed in hidden lofts around American cities to defend against and/or retaliate for projected Soviet airborne aggressions.
To delve into and explore the American public's Cold War mind set, the film presents a wide range of historical black and white archival news footage--some of which hasn't been seen for decades, if ever. Included are press conferences and interviews with government officials, religious leaders, policy makers and scientists. There are clips of American men, women and children, Soviet scientists and politicos commenting on current events and expressing their expectations. The archival footage is fascinating.
A Balanced View
Like the enlightening The Fog of War and other historical documentaries, Sputnik Mania reveals how one historic event can lead to a series of decisions that trigger a chain of events that brings the world to the brink of disaster. In this instance, grandstanding politicians, religious zealots and manipulative media whipped the American populace into a state of paralyzing paranoia that almost exploded into overt conflict.
Of course, documentaries are media presentations, too. It's always possible that a filmmaker has an agenda and is putting forth personal opinion as fact. But, not so in Sputnik Mania. David Hoffman's presentation is thoroughly researched, his presentation is well-balanced and the result is the delivery of unfiltered information that allows you to form your own opinions. Hoffman is quite a compellingly storyteller, and narrator Liev Schreiber's delivery is dramatic and convincing, but the script and its delivery never insinuate personal opinions or conclusions.
The fear and paranoia Americans felt during the Cold War era are not entirely unlike the present day American mind set, as brought about by the events of 9/11. Sputnik Mania plays with an amazing resonance.