Operation Avalanche: Never Quite Lands, by Tyler Smith
Matt Johnson’s Operation Avalanche is a scrappy little mockumentary about the faking of the moon landing that is energetic, paranoid, and often quite funny. I was rooting for this film to work, which it often does. However, as the sense of fun starts to fade and the thriller elements come into play, one gets the feeling that the filmmakers have bitten off more than they can chew. This feeling is confirmed, as the film, which started with such a bang, ends with a half-hearted whimper.
The story involves several CIA agents being sent to NASA to root out a possible Russian spy. They pose as documentary filmmakers, so that nobody will wonder why they’re wandering around asking questions. Their mission quickly pivots from looking for the spy to using their filmmaking experience to fake the moon landing. With the Soviets nipping at NASA’s heels, it’s important that the United States be the first to land a man on the moon, or at least appear to.
As these young men go about cobbling together a convincing set, their enthusiasm for the project increases. We start to forget that these men work for the CIA and being to see them as eager young filmmakers trying to make their mark. This is compounded when they seek out the advice of Stanley Kubrick, who is making his own space adventure.
Moments like this are when the film is at its best, occasionally giving the audience a knowing wink, toying in an almost Twilight Zone-esque way with the idea that the conspiracies we’ve heard over the years about the moon landing are all true. It even turns occasionally poignant, as the agents workshop every possible iteration of Neil Armstrong’s famous declaration, before arriving at just the right wording. In a way, their excitement and imagination mirrors that of the nation itself at the notion of space travel. And, yes, it may be made up, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t inspiring.
However, once the hoax is fully realized, it becomes imperative to the CIA to reduce the number of people that know about it. This means that our enthusiastic would-be filmmakers are suddenly in danger. Many of these moments work well, as when a key member of the group is found hanging in his garage, ostensibly from suicide. There is also a car chase that is fairly effective, complete with men in suits firing off revolvers at our heroes.
The problem here is that, while the makers of Operation Avalanche do a good job of establishing a playful conspiratorial tone, they don’t seem to know what to do once the actual story asserts itself. A key pitfall in setting up the entire U.S. intelligence community as your antagonist is that it becomes very difficult to believably evade them for very long.
So, rather than puzzle out the story to a satisfactory conclusion, Matt Johnson decides to simply stop everything and roll credits. There’s nothing objectively wrong with this choice, especially when one considers how often mockumentaries and found footage films opt to go out on an ambiguous note. However, where many of those films make this choice because it’s the only logical end point for their story (think of the ending of The Blair Witch Project, for example), Johnson seems to make it out of panic, ultimately ending the film with the artistic equivalent of a shrug.
This ending casts the rest of the film in a different light, in regards to the director’s motivation. It’s very clear that he is excited to engage with these conspiracy theories, and he obviously wants to push himself technically, trying (mostly successfully) to re-create 1960s filmmaking techniques. But it seems clear that that’s where his interest stops. His engagement with the audience is relegated mostly to nods and winks, with a chuckle here and there, rather than crafting a thought-provoking story with compelling characters. These limitations ultimately makes Operation Avalanche feel much more like a filmmaking exercise than an actual film.