Documentary filmmaker Robert Stone delivered a brilliant performance in his 1987 film Radio Bikini, his debut that chronicled Operation Crossroads,involving a pair of atomic tests on the Marshall Islands. One of the most vital features of this film was it’s minimal use of narration. About 98% of the film is told solely through archival footage of the period. Apparently inspired by the cold war era sociopolitical atmosphere Stone elected to make his follow up about the next logical step following the advent of the atomic age-the beginning of the exploration of outer space and the ensuing “space race” that followed between the United States and the Soviet union.
Stone begins the film with an Atlas ICBM test in Florida that ends in a typically enormous explosion,over which is played Ferrante & Teicher’s 50’s pop hit “Sleepwalk”. The story than follows into the USSR’s launch of the first human made satellite Sputnik into Earth orbit. Of course immediately the satellite is thought to have massive military implications. We see images of engineers,local Floridonians and even a representative from the Chrysler corporation all discussing the the development of ICBM’s and therefore the linkage between the space race and the nuclear arms race. Many many attempts at an American satellite fail until 1958 when Explorer 1 is successfully launched and America reveals it’s first Astronaut core,the Mercury 7,to the world.
As astronaut Allen Shepard debates who will be the first man in space,a soviet cosmonaut named Yuri Gagarin takes that mantle. Not long after Shepard becomes the first American in space,though the soviets point out it was not an orbital light as theirs ways. By that time President Kennedy has already committed America to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by decades end. This results in another frantic race to hurry forward the Mercury program-culminating in John Glenn’s first American orbital flight. Glenn returns a national hero and his hometown family and friends even make a miniature documentary before the film cuts to footage of the first moon landings several years later.
This film is somewhat different from Stone’s debut as it contains no outside narration whatsoever. The entire story is told through archival footage. By juxtaposing footage of television shows,astronaut training footage and perhaps most significantly footage from the Soviet Union’s cosmonaut training program (probably obtained through much difficulty as this film was made just before the end of the cold war) with old American and Russian science fiction films and random human conversations this film has the affect of making the viewer feel as if they’re genuinely participating in these events. My own favorite part is,during a TV show discussing the USSR’s Sputnik 5’s ability to jam US television signals Stone jump cuts via static to a Soviet export commercial for a brand of cigarettes named Laika,named after the Soviet dog who was a passenger on Sputnik 2. Again Robert Stone ably expressed the absurdity,humor and wonderment of the space race in this film perhaps more potently than most documentaries on the subject.