Operation Avalanche (2016)

28 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Some day, I’ll write a “Revised Review” for Matt Johnson’s debut feature “The Dirties.” I originally gave it a three-star review, but then as time went on, I wrote an in-depth column about its themes and meanings, after repeated viewings. Now, after seeing it about 40-50 times, I’m unashamed to say it’s one of my new personal favorites and it deserves another review.

But this review isn’t about that. It’s about Johnson’s next film, “Operation Avalanche,” another “faux-documentary” (which shows to be a good style for Johnson, who clearly loves film and filmmaking). Johnson is clearly a filmmaker who loves to take chances—his previous film (“The Dirties”) involved a school shooting, and this one…has a pretty interesting backstory.

“Operation Avalanche” was made illegally (practically), as Johnson and his crew managed to get into locations such as NASA and Shepperton Studios, by disguising themselves as a documentary film crew. Technically, they were telling the truth; but what they were keeping secret was the fact that they were actually making a faux-documentary narrative set in the late-1960s, when NASA was about to launch Apollo 11. (But wait—it gets better.) In the film, they play the film crew hired to stage the moon landing… It’s so crazy, it actually works.

Set in the late ‘60s, the film stars Johnson and Owen Williams (playing themselves, as they did in “The Dirties”) as Ivy League film geeks who are recruited by the CIA and assigned to locate and expose a Soviet spy in NASA. Armed with cameras and two camera operators, they pretend they’re making a documentary about the upcoming race to the moon, and they bug the phones in an attempt to find the spy. But they learn that the U.S. can’t land on the moon, as it’s years behind schedule on the plans. That’s when Johnson comes up with a plan even trickier (and riskier) than the infiltration plan—make a film that simulates a moon landing and make it appear as if it’s Neil Armstrong walking on the lunar surface. They rent a warehouse for a set, build a giant prop that resembles Apollo 11, import sand from certain areas that supposedly resembles the lunar ground, and even get help from Stanley Kubrick (like, the Stanley Kubrick, using photographs and CGI to bring him to life for a brief scene—“Forrest Gump,” eat your heart out). But a hoax this controversial requires the CIA to eliminate any and all participants/witnesses if it all fails…even if they don’t know whether or not it will.

As a filmmaker, Johnson shows how bright he can be when making a film on a micro-budget—he makes the material consistently engaging, he helps us to believe in the story and the execution, and even though he doesn’t like to refer to his films as “found-footage,” it’s hard to deny he knows how to breathe new life into a subgenre that was growing tiresome before. He’s also a very good actor—he’s charismatic and knows how to gain the audience’s attention with his screen presence alone. And as I stated before, he loves to take chances with his films. “Operation Avalanche” could’ve been an easy failure, harping on the popular conspiracy theory that still has people debating to this day. For this film, he presents us with not necessarily his factual interpretation as to the behind-the-scenes of the moon landing (whether it was faked or for real) but with a “what-if” scenario. What if the landing really was fabricated? How would that have been done? What troubles went into it? Etc. Johnson has fun with it.

As with “The Dirties,” “Operation Avalanche” is about an ambitious, film-loving young person wanting to push the boundaries of what he can do with film, without thinking ahead about the consequences first. He wants his fame in helping the government pull off the greatest scam of all time, but what does it matter to anyone but himself? If America found out about it, he’d be the most hated man in the country. And there are also dire consequences for the people helping him. The final moment, in which everything has become all too real and bitter for Johnson, is probably the very best thing in the movie.

But again, as with “The Dirties,” “Operation Avalanche” is also very funny, particularly when it comes to his new film equipment and especially when Johnson is directing Williams in a space suit to hop slowly as if he’s walking on the moon. And there’s also a lot of fun in the film’s in-jokes relating to other films such as Kubrick’s work, which leads to an amazing sequence in which Johnson sneaks his way into Kubrick’s “2001” set to figure out how to use “front-screen projection.” A highlight of this scene—Johnson manages to get Kubrick’s autograph.

The film can also get very tense too, especially in the final act, which includes a car chase shot from inside the pursued car in one take.

“Operation Avalanche” is in the same vein as something like a Christopher Guest mockumentary or an episode of “Documentary Now,” not necessarily “mocking” the style of filmmaking but more appreciating/celebrating it (as well as positively satirizing it). It’s compelling, it’s fun, and it’s yet another example of what a talent Matt Johnson is. I eagerly await his next project, whatever it may be.

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