SXSW Film Review – Operation Avalanche
Ambition starts as farce and leads to conspiratorial designs in this quasi-mockumentary thriller from actor/director Matt Johnson. Playing with the conceit of one of the biggest conspiracy theories of our time, Operation Avalanche begins with a group of young CIA agents working in the Audio/Video department who convince their superiors they should go undercover at NASA as filmmakers documenting the Apollo program in order to try and expose a known mole. Surreptitiously they become involved in a plan to fake the moon landing to cover for NASA’s setback in figuring a way to accomplish the goal before the Russians.
It is clever filmmaking for high concept on low budget terms. A movie within a movie that strangely gets more meta and self-reflexive knowing that Johnson and his crew actually convinced NASA to let them film there under the pretense they were indeed a documentary crew. The fact they were able to apply certain Fair Use laws in order to publicly screen and distribute footage they did not get permission to record is a whole other article unto itself. However, that they did it gives the movie an authenticity that also helps significantly bolster a small budget’s production design.
The cast is mostly credited as playing themselves. Johnson, the leader both on and off screen has a natural naive charm about him that is equally disarming and effective. It’s easy to see how he convinces people to let him into places and do things he probably should not be. It also lends handily to creating a character that’s oblivious to designing his own dismal fate. One of the best things this movie achieves is shifting rather seamlessly in tone from aimless comedy to paranoid thriller, with a splash of action mixed in. A lot of this is due to Johnson’s almost overly enthusiastic performance while being surrounded by actors playing things rather straight. This allows for the alienation of Johnson to be his fortuitous dive into the resulting end of any conspiracy run through to conclusion. One of the most technically impressive moments comes from a car chase late in the third act, done in a long shot, helping to solidify the story’s tonal change.
Johnson and co. have clearly done their research, fitting in small facets of the moon landing conspiracy details, including also large ones, like one of the most talked about aspects, the involvement of director Stanley Kubrick. The movie reaches a point where it becomes just as fun to see theory concepts lineup as it does for the scenario itself to play out. However, the movie does reach a point where the naive facade becomes distracting from the emotion of the scenario’s consequences and ultimately comes off as perhaps just a clever student movie, complete with a cool after effect preset that makes the footage look vintage. Worth the watch though as fortunately the tonal change comes right as the movie starts to overstay its conceptual welcome and does a few surprising things before cutting to black.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with director/star Matt Johnson and producer Matthew Miller from SXSW 2016.