Mark Reviews Movies

Operation Avalanche


2 Ĺ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Matt Johnson

Cast: Matt Johnson, Owen Williams, Josh Boles, Jared Raab, Andrew Appelle, Ray James, Sharon Belle, Krista Madison, the voice of Joe Thomas

MPAA Rating: R (for language including a brief sexual reference)

Running Time: 1:34

Release Date: 9/16/16 (limited); 9/30/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 29, 2016

A common component of the uncommon conspiracy theory that the moon landing of July 20, 1969, was faked is the belief that director Stanley Kubrick shot the footage on a stage. Operation Avalanche portrays Kubrick as an unwitting technical advisor to a very real conspiracy, which is orchestrated by an ambitious CIA agent with a love of film, a two-man camera crew, the backing of the agency, and a knack for coming up with lies that are so mundane that everyone assumes they're the truth.

The idea that NASA faked the moon landing is, of course, a dumb one, with no legitimate evidence and based on faulty claims. With that said, screenwriters Matt Johnson and Josh Boles have crafted about as logical a scenario in which such a conspiracy could have happened as one could imagine.

To make it more convincing, Johnson, who also directed the movie, has made a fake documentary that looks and sounds as if it had been shot in the late 1960s, hidden away for decades, and now arrives in theaters showing an abundance of wear and tear on the film negative. The movie does all of this even while it uses modern visual effects to have the actors interview the head of NASA, to insert them into the organization's busy mission control room, and to put them on a set with Kubrick.

The story is only as convincing as one's openness to the conspiracy theory will allow. The technique, though, mostly succeeds, whether you have the correct position or the wrong opinion on the matter of the actual fact of the Apollo 11 mission.

Johnson does triple duty here as co-writer, director, and star of the movie. In it, he plays a CIA agent named Matt Johnson, who begins his career with the agency doing an investigation into Kubrick's political alliances. His partner is Owen Williams (the actor of the same name playing a character named after him), and they, along with Jared Raab and Andrew Appelle (both characters in the same same-name situation as the other two), are part of what they have dubbed the CIA's "A.V. Club."

Matt wants the team to lead an investigation looking for a Soviet mole within NASA. His plan is to disguise the team as a film crew making a documentary about the Apollo program. CIA Director Burkett (Ray James) begrudgingly agrees after Matt proves that his guys are experts at covertly filming peopleóby filming the top-secret meeting that they're having about the operation within NASA.

While looking for the mole, Matt discovers that the lunar lander is faulty. NASA won't be able to land on the moon. If the Russians find out, they could win the Space Race.

You have undoubtedly noticed the self-referential connections between the idea of the movie and its actual content: the actors playing characters with their names, the formal elements that make a modern movie look like one of the period, and the fact that this is a fake documentary about a group of guys making a fake documentary. It's something of an inside joke, obviously, but it's a bit nifty how Johnson and Boles' screenplay exploits our awareness of and expectations for the material.

We come into these movies, for example, wondering who edited this footage together, and the screenwriters answer that. We're curious why characters in such movies film everything, and here, there's the added layer of questioning why characters working on a clandestine mission would film the evidence of the particulars of that mission. Johnson and Boles don't quite have reasonable answer for that second point, although the wealth of footage turns out to be convenient for Matt once the CIA's clean-up phase goes into action.

Most important, though, is how Johnson makes us think about how he has put his own movie together as a way to engage our curiosity about the filmmaking process. This is, after all, the story of a film director making the most significant work of his career.

The screenplay takes bits and pieces of various elements of the broader conspiracy theory, but it doesn't present them merely as they are. Instead, Johnson uses them as a way to show how someone as clever and devious as Matt would go about using his craft to pull off the stunt. Matt and the CIA director's right-hand man (Josh Boles) travel to various deserts and rocky terrains to scout for an appropriate location. Matt visits Kubrick on set to see how the director's groundbreaking visual effects on his space movie could convince the public that two men are actually on the moon in Matt's movie. As for replicating lower gravity, it's simply a matter of speeding up the camera.

The novelty of the movie's clever, in-the-know hook supports this material for only so long, though. Unfortunately, the hook is not only an in-joke but also the movie's entire foundation. Once the plan is set and underway, Operation Avalanche begins a prolonged period of wheel-spinning, featuring an ethical disagreement between Matt and Owen, a conspiracy within a conspiracy, and plenty of repetitive scenes of a silent Matt considering the weight of what he has done (An extended car chase, shot entirely from the backseat of the pursued party's vehicle, is an invigorating exception). It's ultimately a movie in search of something of substance beneath its technical and narrative gimmickry.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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