A seemingly esoteric subject — the launch of Russia’s Sputnik satellite — is exhumed and made exciting in this important slice of you-are-there documaking. If distribs can see the timely value of this snapshot of a crucial moment in U.S. and world history, “The Fever of ’57” has a shot at reaching auds who will find it useful material a half-century later, at the start of a new, potentially more dangerous era.
Although virtually everyone of a certain age remembers the moment Sputnik shot into orbit in October 1957, most have forgotten how quickly the awe turned to shock as, virtually over a single weekend, right-wing chest-thumpers (led by Democrats like President Lyndon Johnson) scared the bejeezus out of initially admiring Americans.
Helmer-scripter David Hoffman (“Making Sense of the Sixties”) builds the case slowly, detailing the space race that developed over the next 18 months, along with the consequent duck-and-cover hysteria many Yanks remember warily from their mushroom-clouded childhoods.
Along the way, President Eisenhower, long faulted for waffling during this manufactured crisis, is rehabilitated as a wise leader who put human reason above political concerns. Ike had already coined the phrase “military-industrial complex,” and his fear of weapons in space caused him to restrain an army program he saw as leading to an immediate arms race — something that came true the moment it was unleashed.
Pic’s principal achievement is to reveal, through family members, former Cold Warriors and old-school journalists (like Daniel Schorr), that ex-soldiers Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev, initially pandering to their bases, got together privately to defuse the rapidly intensifying threat.
Smoothly blended combo of archival footage, fresh interviews, (somewhat stiff) re-enactments and campy artifacts from the period is both entertaining and insightful, presaging Reagan’s failed Star Wars buildup and the current Iraq War. It is also a quaint reminder of America’s short-lived love affair with real science; glimpses of “October Sky” rocket clubs are especially poignant.
All tech credits are first-rate.