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Film review: Sputnik Mania

Published: Thursday, June 19 2008 3:10 p.m. MDT

If it weren't for the archival and newsreel footage and other re-creations of certain historic events, "Sputnik Mania" might have come off as a filmed book on tape.

After all, Liev Schreiber narrates this documentary feature by using portions that were taken directly from the source material, Paul Dickson's nonfiction best-seller "Sputnik: The Shock of the Century." (Dickson was one of the screenwriters and is one of the film's interview subjects, so it's not really film plagiarism.)

Since that doesn't sound like enthralling stuff, it's fortunate that both the book and the time period it covers are interesting. Also, this is one film that knows when to shut up (it runs a little less than 90 minutes).

The enlightening "Sputnik Mania" looks at the late '50s, a time that was dominated by Cold War hysteria. That paranoia only worsened when the Soviet Union launched an unmanned, artificial satellite nicknamed "Sputnik" into space in 1957, which was well ahead of any U.S. space efforts.

Any initial excitement from the feat gave way to fears the rockets that powered the satellite into orbit might have serious military applications. And that put increased pressure on then-U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to rush along a similar, American satellite program.

However, some initial efforts in that regard were unsuccessful, and Eisenhower was heavily criticized for his perceived lack of foresight and forward thinking.

Dickson and co-screenwriter, producer and director David Hoffman surmise that the heavy presidential scrutiny and subsequent tensions may have given additional leverage to the already powerful U.S. Military-Industrial Complex.

And recently released, previously classified documents discussed in both the book and the film reveal that the Russian government's mindset was similar to ours.

"Sputnik Mania" is not rated but would probably receive a PG for some violent imagery (atomic testing, rocket explosions, race riots and a disturbing cartoon), slurs based on race, nationality and political belief systems, and scattered use of mild profanity (mostly religiously based). Running time: 87 minutes.


E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com