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THE FEVER OF ‘57

By Admin | August 9, 2007

Space might be the final frontier, but it’s not an easy sell. Sanjaya Malakar’s hair lures more viewers than Cape Canaveral, and Adam Sandler draws a larger fan base than NASA. Meanwhile, most movies about astronauts sink faster than a lead meteorite. (Remember “The Astronaut’s Wife”? I didn’t think so.)

But hold onto your booster rockets and stop the countdown to blast-off for one friggin’ minute. Like Gus Grisham’s sunken space capsule, 1983’s brilliant “The Right Stuff” might have screwed the pooch at the box office, but has since accumulated a devoted following on DVD. And while its fact-based depictions might not deliver box-office bullion, isn’t outer space the inspiration behind lucrative Lucas, sumptuous Spielberg, and cash-cow Cameron? The Millenium Falcon is still hip in the New Millenium.

So there’s hope for “The Fever of ’57,” an amazing, light-speed ride through one of mankind’s more dramatic run-ins with the cosmos. Outer space fans willing to put history before Klingons, and give reality priority over sci-fi fantasy, should embrace David Hoffman’s fascinating documentary.

“The Fever of ‘57” begins with the launch of Russia’s Sputnik, mankind’s first artificial satellite. While only the size of a soccer ball and weighing less than 200 pounds, Sputnik carried a weighty influence. Initially, the event transcended ideology and geography, celebrated across the globe. As the film’s narrator explains, “Nothing man-made had ever been so global. Sputnik passed over rich, poor, city dwellers, and farmers.” Families huddled together with radios, tuning in the satellite’s signal and tracking progress of this “first man-made moon.” Rock and roll gave way to “rocket roll,” the film informs, showing the proliferation of teen-run rocket clubs (immortalized in more cinematic detail by the 1999 feature film “October Sky”).

Unifying elation soon turned to paranoia and fear. The diary of Senator Lyndon Johnson reflects this shift. “I felt uneasy”, revealed Johnson after viewing Sputnik from the heavens. “Our sky seemed alien.” The film calls Sputnik the “first shot in a cold war that became very hot.” Would Russia drop bombs onto American soil, via satellite?

Filmmaker Hoffman (“Making Sense of the Sixties”) builds his film with a masterful sense of pacing. Initially, we’re thrown into the competitive spirit of Russia and the U.S., with both countries frantically pushing to outdo one another. We feel America’s anxiety over another nation’s surprising supremacy in the space race, as the Soviets lob increasingly more powerful orbs into the stratosphere. “A country that was not supposed to know how to build refrigerators was way ahead of us,” suggested reporter Jay Barbree in the film.

Hoffman’s movie also shows how a collective humanity can transcend even the most alarming world concerns. After dog Laika was launched by the Russians aboard Sputnik 2, the planet’s focus seemed more on the four-legged passenger’s welfare than on an impending missile crisis. Prayer circles and animal rights marches advocated for the furry inhabitant aboard “Mutnik.” (Sadly, Laika did not survive.)

The impending air of Yank dread only thickened with the failure of Vanguard. As America’s initial effort to launch a satellite rocket, the launch was a disaster – Vanguard exploded mere seconds after it was launched. “The Fever of ‘57” exposes the devastating loss of U.S. pride that followed, revealing that the American Stock Exchange closed after Vanguard’s failure, to deter frantic selling.

Viewers are privy to a nonstop parade of black and white images that accent the tense vibe. We watch concrete bomb shelters being built by suburban families, while God-fearing wives speak of never surrendering to “the atheists and their godless way of life.” A series of nuclear bomb tests in Russia only heightens the shrill mood.

Is there a hero in “The Fever of ’57”? Most definitely. President Dwight Eisenhower, often criticized for his seeming indifference to the cold war, emerges as a wise, perceptive peacemaker. Concerned with the escalating potential for nuclear war, Eisenhower founded NASA, and insisted that civilians – not military – run the agency for “peaceful purposes.” The film also reveals that Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev – both former soldiers – held secret meetings to negotiate a peaceful de-escalation of the conflict. (At the film’s Seattle International Film Festival Q & A, Hoffman elaborated on a “private agreement” reached by the two world leaders not to engage nuclear war, but warned historians, “it’s not in any book.”)

Nonfiction outer space might not be hip, trendy, or fashionable. However, by emphasizing how this new frontier captured both the awe and terror of global society, “The Fever of ‘57” becomes something more than just a “space documentary” (marred only by its difficult-to-read subtitles). It reveals how we respond to the unknown, and the choices we make to cope with this unease. In this way, it’s a remarkably timely film. Fifty years later, the fever still burns.

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