D: Matt Johnson / 94m
Cast: Matt Johnson, Owen Williams, Andy Appelle, Jared Raab, Josh Boles, Ray James, Sharon Belle, Krista Madison, Joe J. Thomas
It’s 1967 and the US space programme is focused entirely on getting a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and in doing so, honouring a promise made by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, and stealing a march on the Soviet Union. When the CIA discovers that secrets about the space programme are finding their way to the Russians, they launch Operstion Zipper, an attempt at finding the mole within NASA. When recent CIA recruit Matt Johnson hears that the CIA is planning to send an agent who will be pretending to be a scientist – something Johnson believes would be doomed to failure – he manages to convince his boss, Director Brackett (James), to send himself and three other new recruits (Williams, Appelle, Raab) along to NASA posing as a documentary movie crew. The initial stages of their investigation reveals a startling truth: NASA won’t be able to put a man on the moon until 1971 at the earliest. This gives Johnson an idea: what if footage of the proposed moon landing could be fabricated, and broadcast as if it had really happened…?
By now, most of us will be aware of the conspiracy theory that the US faked the Apollo 11 moon landing, and that it was all shot in a studio somewhere. Capricorn One (1978) switched the moon for Mars, while in Moonwalkers (2015), Stanley Kubrick is approached to shoot the moon landing by a CIA agent. Operation Avalanche uses the notion of Kubrick’s involvement as well (and includes a shot that is technically very impressive for such a low budget movie), but in the end, takes a very different route in telling its somewhat laboured story. As a concept, Johnson and co-writer Boles’s take on things is a little off-kilter, with Johnson able to pull the wool over the eyes of his colleagues way too easily (he lies to them when he tells them Brackett has agreed to their shooting the moon landing as real). He’s also able to manufacture the “moon landing” so anonymously that when it looks as if either the Russians or the CIA themselves are monitoring his activity, he’s still able to bury the supporting evidence of what he’s done in a field – in broad daylight. Overall, these are minor issues, but when the movie takes a darker turn in the final third, a lot more reveal themselves.
For the most part, Johnson’s tale within a tale is a fascinating construction, taking many of the conspiracy theory clichés that are out there and building a largely cohesive story around them. Johnson’s alternate version of 1967 is studded with detail, and the recreation of the period is done remarkably well on such a low budget, but it’s the early scenes of the team’s subterfuge within NASA that Johnson handles really well. When it becomes clear that Johnson and his team are under surveillance, and they don’t know by whom, the movie kicks into gear after a slow start, but though the narrative picks up speed, Johnson’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic and paranoid, leading to a falling out with Williams, and the fear that Operation Avalanche might end up being sabotaged by the CIA (though the script can’t come up with a reason why this might happen). Some of it is risible, some of it is eerily effective, and there’s more that feels as if Johnson and Boles had several more ideas but they couldn’t find a way to fit them all in. The movie closes on a moment of artful ambiguity that is deceptively powerful, and incredibly apt considering the subject matter.
Rating: 6/10 – technically very impressive for a found footage movie, in the end Operation Avalanche raises more questions of its script than it provides pseudo-answers to the moon-landing-as-fake-footage question; with good performances and a subversive sense of period humour, it’s a movie that aims high, but much like the mission it’s “aiding”(?), it doesn’t always attain the goals Johnson has set out for it.