Rocket Attack U.S.A./Five Minutes to Zero (1958/1961) -**
On October 4th, 1957, the OKB-1 rocketry bureau under Chief Designer Sergei Korolev (one of several independent and to some extent competing agencies within the Soviet space program) launched Sputnik 1 into orbit. The satellite didn’t actually do anything except emit radio pulses like an electronic heartbeat, detectable from the ground on two different shortwave frequencies, but functionality wasn’t the point. The point was that for the first time ever, an object made by human hands had taken up long-term residence in outer space. (Sputnik 1 stayed up for exactly three months, dropping into the atmosphere to its destruction on January 4th, 1958, after 1440 complete orbits.) Or rather, that was half the point. The other half was that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had pulled it off before the United States of America or any of the other Western powers: IN YOUR FACE, capitalist-imperialist running dogs!
I don’t think anyone who wasn’t around to experience it can really understand what a shock that news was on this side of the Iron Curtain. I mean, I’ve read enough memoirs and essays and whatnot to form an intellectual picture of the event, but I know I’m missing the emotional texture. What comes through most strongly in those firsthand accounts is how personally Americans of the time took it when they learned that the Russians had had beaten us into space. Forget the geopolitics of the situation, which were troubling enough. Solving intricate technical problems was supposed to be our thing, and besides, weren’t we always saying that one reason Communism was so awful was that it stifled exactly the sort of creativity that made such triumphs possible? If both of those premises were correct— and they had to be correct; otherwise, it would be necessary to reexamine a whole lot of thinking that nobody wanted reexamined— then no Russian gizmo should be up there zipping around the planet and beeping impassively at nothing in particular. Yet there was no denying it; in fact, foreclosing any possibility of denial was the main rationale behind the beeping, which anyone on Earth with a shortwave radio receiver could tune in as Sputnik passed overhead. It was the beginning of the space race as a matter of widespread public concern, and the driver behind a host of new federally-funded research and technology initiatives. It provided the impetus for sweeping reforms of the American educational system meant to produce an entire generation of the world’s finest scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. Because the thing was, a rocket that could put an electronic beeping machine into orbit could just as easily put an H-bomb on Washington DC. In fact, the R-7 launch vehicle that Sputnik 1 rode into space had originally been developed to deliver nukes instead, although it never reached operational deployment in that capacity.
So of course you realize how the bottom-feeders of the movie industry responded to the news. That kind of culture-wide pants-shitting indicated a fortune waiting to be made by anyone quick enough to exploit it. Already by 1958, there arose a whole little mini-metagenre of Sputnik-inspired sci-fi, action, and espionage movies, all of them cheap, all of them rushed into production with varying degrees of franticness, but few if any of them shoddier, clumsier, or hackier than Rocket Attack U.S.A. In fact, Rocket Attack U.S.A. is a case where the scramble to beat the headlines backfired, for the finished product was such obvious trash that it took producer-director (and possibly also writer) Barry Mahon three years to find a distributor willing to touch it. By the time his intended debut feature saw the light of day, Mahon had already moved on from topical action movies to lurid crime, then to horror, and finally to sexploitation, where he apparently found his true calling. Rank as it is, though, Mahon’s crude exhortation to militarism is worth watching for any serious fan or student of Cold War pop culture, because it lays bare the subtext of the space race in an unusually overt manner.
For one thing, it dares to call both the Soviet Union and Sputnik 1 by name, rather than hiding behind the tissue-paper obfuscations of earlier Red-baiting schlock-operas like Invasion U.S.A. In fact, speculation over the true purpose of the Russians’ pioneering satellite is the starting point for this story. A scientist briefs a bunch of military types on his analysis of Sputnik’s enigmatic beeping. There’s no coded information concealed in it, but the scientist cautions that no one has yet succeeded in recording the satellite’s transmissions over Russian airspace. The machine could very well change its tune when there’s no one within earshot but its masters. The great worries are that Sputnik is gathering intelligence on the American rocket program, or worse yet, creating a targeting grid for intercontinental ballistic missiles. General Watkins, the ranking officer at the briefing (who knows— Philip St. George, maybe?), decides that if signals intelligence can’t tell him anything, then he’ll just have to conduct his espionage the old-fashioned way.
Enter John Manston (The Dead One’s John McCay). Watkins wants him to travel to Moscow to connect with a CIA asset by the name of Tanya (Monica Davis, of The Swap and How They Make It and She Should Have Stayed in Bed). Tanya is a foreigner living in Russia as the result of a long and convoluted sob story. She has no investment in or loyalty to the Communist regime, and more importantly, she’s the mistress of the Soviet economic minister (could be Edward Czerniuk— he’s certainly got an authentically Slavic look about him, whoever he is). The minister likes to drink, and when he drinks, he likes to talk. With Tanya’s help, Manston could uncover exactly how the satellite figures in Soviet plans, and exactly what the Reds have learned from it thus far.
Those plans are well worth knowing about, too, because there have been big changes at the Kremlin. Unbeknownst to Western intelligence gatherers, Khrushchev has been eclipsed in the Presidium by a highly decorated marshal who believes the time has come for a more aggressive stance against the US and its allies. Sputnik 1 has indeed told the Russians plenty about the sorry state of American rocketry, and the marshal has been pushing the rest of the Presidium to launch a preemptive nuclear war now, while the advantage is with them. Manston is horrified when he learns of the militaristic turn taken by the economic minister’s pillow talk, and the focus of his activities shifts from snooping to sabotage. Unless he, Tanya and a British agent whom they meet while scoping out a missile base can throw a big damn monkey wrench into the works of the Soviet ICBM program, the USA is doomed!
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by the direction Rocket Attack U.S.A. takes for the final act. After all, I knew this was meant to be an exercise in alarmism, and Invasion U.S.A. had established a precedent for taking alarmism almost all the way six years earlier. Nevertheless, I was not prepared for Manston, Tanya, and Agent Brit Guy to fail in their attempt to plant a bomb on the Russian ICBM’s tail, let alone for their failure to mean exactly what Watkins and his fellows had been insisting it would from the beginning. Who had the nerve to go that dark in the late 1950’s, Sputnik or no Sputnik? Well, evidently the answer to that question is “Barry Mahon.” No sooner are his heroes lying dead in a ditch outside Moscow than we journey to New York City to meet an entirely new cast of characters. Their stories are merely the stuff of everyday life— spousal misunderstandings, minor workplace grievances, and the like— but the real drama here is the contrast between these people’s quotidian business and the hydrogen bomb racing toward them from the other side of the globe. Watkins has every Nike Ajax on the East Coast ready to intercept it, but that’s the whole point of a ballistic missile— only now is a SAM that might be able to hit one entering service, and although part of that delay was due to a treaty between the US and the USSR banning efforts to develop such a weapon, the lackluster performance of contemporary missiles against much easier targets suggests that no vacuum-tube guidance system would have been equal to the task anyway. The marshal’s nuke arrives late in the afternoon, and that’s all for the Big Apple. Taking a further cue from Invasion U.S.A., the film ends by demolishing the fourth wall in order to plead with the audience not to let this story come true.
That’s particularly funny, because Rocket Attack U.S.A. seems to mean that exactly the same way as the earlier film; it prescribes military preparedness as the solution to America’s geopolitical problems. The thing is, though, that the film has just spent its whole running time dramatizing why that isn’t good enough anymore. The thermonuclear-tipped ballistic missile made nonsense of traditional war planning. To quote WarGames, it turned nuclear war into a game in which the only winning move is not to play. Misapplying the logic of preparedness to the post-Sputnik paradigm could mean nothing else but to choose between extinction and genocide— and since both sides could be counted on to choose genocide if it came to that, the practical result could only be mutual extinction. The emergence of that horrifying new reality is what Rocket Attack U.S.A. is overtly about, so it looks extremely silly when it ends with that old-fashioned call for armed vigilance. Why should we listen to Barry Mahon when he so obviously isn’t listening to himself?
That spectacular missing of its own point is just about Rocket Attack U.S.A.’s sole source of genuine interest, except perhaps for the most dedicated students of 1960’s sexploitation. Those folks might find some edification in the nightclub scene that precedes the first meeting between Manston and Tanya. Considering the turn Mahon’s career would take about five years after this, it might be worthy of some small note that he felt compelled here to hit the pause button on a plot that was already moving on geologic time to show a half-assed erotic dance number from beginning to end. Even an Arabian Nights-themed striptease can’t enliven this movie too much, however, because Mahon insists upon putting the camera in all the worst places to capture the action. We end up seeing more of the backs of the audience’s heads than we ever do of the dancer. Similarly, in the print that I saw (which, to be fair, may have been edited for either length or content), we never get to see Tanya seducing any intel out of the economic minister. He knocks on the door, Manston races across the apartment to hide in the closet, and we cut straight to Tanya telling John what her boozy oaf of a lover said while they were in bed together, as the oaf in question snoozes obliviously on the sofa not five feet away. It got to the point that I was frankly astonished to see the climactic raid on the missile base play out in front of the camera, rather than being described to Watkins over the phone after the fact. Almost as surprising was that the missile base actually had a missile in it, or at least a tacky construction of surplus water main and sheet metal that could pass for a missile if you were no more particular about verisimilitude than the average seven-year-old. Earlier, when the marshal and his comrades were touring the site, the missile was conspicuously absent— not merely off-screen, but obviously nowhere on the premises. In one shot, while the tour group from the Presidium are supposedly admiring their new super-weapon, the lighting conditions are such that they ought to be completely in the shade thrown by the ICBM, but the only shadows on the ground around them are their own. At this point, you should be able to see for yourself what’s most wrong with Rocket Attack U.S.A. On top of being junky, amateurish, poorly structured, crassly alarmist, and intellectually incoherent, it’s simply unconscionably boring.
This review is part of a team-up between 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting and Checkpoint Telstar, the proprietor of which shares my queasy fascination with all things Cold War. Click the banner below for a complete list of the films we’re covering to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down.