Sputnik made the United States a nudnik, and in the eyes of the world we were kaputnik. On Friday, Oct. 4, 1957, when the U.S.S.R. rocketed into orbit a 184-pound metal ball with two radios, the Soviets launched the Space Age. "We are about to create a new planet," an eyewitness scientist wrote in his diary, and even today, the impact of that artificial satellite makes hyperbolic phrases feel like understatement.
Most of this documentary, based on Paul Dickson's book Sputnik: The Shock of the Century, does, in fact, feels like understatement, but for a different reason. Stodgily straightforward, with a parade of news and pop-culture images and your recommended daily requirement of facts, this theatrical release produced by the History Channel is admirable and even engaging. Yet despite literally explosive declassified footage featuring the Soviets’ top-secret Star City launch site as well as their H-bomb tests, Sputnik Mania remains much like narrator Liev Schreiber—clear, comprehensible, polished and articulate, but lacking the gut-punch to raise this portrait of a world-changing event from the level of a museum piece.
But what a museum piece! Today everybody talks about the space race and the Cold War, but this documentary captures how the satellite sparked people’s imagination. The "first man-made moon," as headlines dubbed it, was hugely exciting—the world had entered "the future!"—and it was only on the Monday after, when politicians and priests got on TV to call the launch an aggressive act, that the public saw Sputnik as a threat. Even given the unprecedented uncertainly and the benefit of hindsight, the alarmism wasn't necessary—one can counsel caution without panicking people for political reasons. Drop bombs from space? Jam radio stations and early-warning systems? Sputnik, in certain hands, became an all-purpose bogeyman to push political and religious agendas. One minister made headlines claiming Sputnik proved that the Second Coming of Christ was at hand.
Before all that, however, we're thrown back into a world of wonder: Televised shots show Sputnik crossing the night sky like a celestial Ping-Pong ball. Jet-pilot John Glenn appears on the game show “Name That Tune,” joking that Sputnik is "out of this world" and speaking admiringly of the scientific marvel. Surprisingly eloquent are accounts from average citizens like Frank O'Rourke of Oklahoma City, who remembers watching the sky that night. "Some of us cried. I stood in awe."
Further Sputniks went up, one of them bearing the first live animal into space, the dog Laika. (Confusingly, the documentary depicts two dogs, one with pointed, long-haired ears at the 39-minute mark, and another with floppy-tipped, short-haired ears about 80 seconds later, the latter also shown in newspaper photos.) Protestors appeared at Soviet embassies only when the world realized the "muttnik" wasn't going to make it back alive.
Robert Klein jokes darkly about our duck-and-cover delusions, Nikita Khrushchev's son Sergei compares his father to Jesus Christ, and President Dwight Eisenhower's granddaughter Susan reminisces, along with a host of scientists, journalists and an elderly Eileen Galloway, defense analyst of then senator Lyndon Johnson. The story culminates in the creation of NASA, after which one could go on to part two and watch the DVD of the more emotionally engaging documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon (2007). If Sputnik Mania sits in the shadow of that work, it's doing so behind the desk in a pretty good classroom.