‘Operation Avalanche’ makes intriguing and entertaining leaps
Directed by: Matt Johnson
Written by: Matt Johnson, Josh Boles
Starring: Matt Johnson, Owen Williams, Josh Boles, and Krista Madison
“Operation Avalanche” – “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind” – Neil Armstrong
“Oh what tangled webs we weave, when we first practice to deceive.” – Walter Scott
Astronaut Neil Armstrong uttered those famous words, when he first stepped on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969, and that particular landmark moment set off beaming amounts of pride and wonder for the entire country. Even legendary television anchor Walter Cronkite took off his glasses and smiled during the CBS broadcast of the moon landing.
“Operation Avalanche” presents an altogether different perspective about the Apollo 11 mission that would make Cronkite remove his glasses in disbelief for another reason. Director Matt Johnson’s intriguing, enjoyable and fictionalized story provides an insiders’ view of NASA during the 1960s and “exposes” that the organization fabricated the famed moon landing.
Set in 1965, Johnson and Owen Williams play two young CIA analysts who generally toil in the bowels of the agency. Now, they do recently complete a project called Operation Deep Red which concludes that director Stanley Kubrick is not a spy. (Well, that’s a relief, right?) Johnson then filibusters his boss that Williams and he are perfect for a new mission, Operation Zipper, to find a Soviet spy wandering around hallways of NASA.
By somehow winning over the CIA director, they earn the job and pose as National Educational Television filmmakers. They are pretending to film a documentary about the Apollo program at NASA while truly looking for the elusive spy. Soon, however, their mission takes a dramatic left turn (for reasons that I will not mention), and it is up to Johnson, Williams and two other CIA film crew members to concoct a fake moon landing to massively fool a worldwide television audience.
To the naked eye, “Operation Avalanche” could fool just about anyone in believing that the movie itself actually is from the 1960s. Filmed from the perspective of Johnson and Williams’ two camera crew assistants, the picture does admittedly have a familiar found footage style that we have seen in countless movies ad nauseam ever since “The Blair Witch Project” (1999). On the other hand, everything shot has an intentionally grainy, 1960s look and feel and very much resembles old movies from elementary school science classes in which a deadpan scientist with horn-rimmed glasses smokes a cigarette and explains basic gravity or demonstrates how water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
(If I am dating myself and you are not familiar with such wonders of childhood, see also Patches O’Houlihan’s (Hank Azaria) enlightened explanation of the rules of dodgeball in the 2004 comedy “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story”.)
Although Johnson’s movie is marketed as a thriller (and it does contain some effectively gripping moments), it also doubles as a comedy too. Johnson plays a brilliant, Type A and ambitious jokester. When he is not pushing boundaries within the CIA and NASA, he spends time teasing and bothering an introverted Williams and the man’s wife (Krista Madison). Although make no mistake, devising schemes to create a false moon landing is Johnson’s passion. He is excellent at his job while also offering hearty laughs of wonder for the audience, as we experience the construction of a moon surface, spacewalk, spacecraft, and more. In addition, to simulate the moon’s environment, Johnson improvises a nifty rock and feather gravity trick.
There are no mysteries or tricks in finding the strengths of this movie: the lead performances, the seemingly authentic 1960s production values and the fascinating behind-the-scenes steps needed to engender one of the greatest conspiracy theories of all time. “Operation Avalanche” thrives within these spaces but gets a bit lost during its spy thriller narrative.
Remember, Johnson and Williams’ original mission is to find the Soviet mole within NASA. Unfortunately, this narrative rears its dangerous head, when I just wanted to see Johnson play a mad scientist and create his incomprehensible hoax on the American people in 1969. Still, there is plenty of cinematic food for thought and an ambitious CIA agent’s tangled webs of deceit to make “Operation Avalanche” an entertaining leap. (3/4 stars)
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.