On October 4, 1957, Russia launched the first satellite—a spiky, silver sphere named Sputnik—into orbit. The world watched the skies, and America gritted its teeth. “Second in space means second in everything,” then-senator Lyndon B. Johnson declared, as the nation’s sense of superiority took a major blow. Even worse than the collective ego-wounding that Sputnik caused, however, was the U.S. government’s realization that our commie archenemies could now send a nuclear missile speeding over to our shores.
David Hoffman’s rollicking, flotsam-filled history lesson charts the effect that the Soviets’ scientific breakthrough had on the era’s zeitgeist, ranging from toy manufacturing to Cold War political maneuvering. Archival footage covers every angle: Eisenhower sweats out tense press conferences, New Yorkers with thick outer-borough accents offer man-on-the-street perspectives, and Russki propaganda films equate our unsuccessful rocket launches with domestic debacles in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Hoffman manages to keep the tone light—even H-bomb paranoia gets a breezy treatment—though most of his filmmaking choices range from banal to boneheaded. Leaving out any backstory about Sputnik’s construction is forgivable, but after mentioning that German scientist Wernher von Braun once worked for Hitler, is there really a need to cut to stock footage of the Führer? (Oh, that Hitler!) Does a reading of Johnson’s journal require ridiculously twangy music in the background?