Looking Back at 2010s Films: Operation Avalanche (2016)

9 Oct


By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films my most anticipated movie of 2016 wasn’t “Deadpool” or “Captain America: Civil War” or even “Rogue One.” Nope–it was a faux-documentary about the Apollo 11 mission…and how the CIA faked the moon landing!

“Operation Avalanche” was Canadian indie filmmaker Matt Johnson’s follow-up to his Slamdance hit “The Dirties,” also a faux-documentary with both comedy and thriller elements. (Kevin Smith even called it “the most important film you’ll see all year.”) I love “The Dirties”–I even wrote an analytical essay about “The Dirties” for journalism class (and I posted it on my blog–it’s better than the original 3-star review I wrote for it). I went from simply liking it to calling it one of my new favorite movies.

So, of course, when I heard his next film, “Operation Avalanche,” was screening at Sundance in January 2016, I was already interested. When I read that it was about faking the moon landing, I was excited to see it, especially if it was being presented in the same fake-doc style as “The Dirties.” Matt Johnson seemed to know exactly how to use the found-footage/faux-documentary approach to its absolute max.

It’d be a long time before I could catch it on DVD–it was worth the wait! (I even put it in my year-end top-10.)

And yes…that is exactly what the film is about. Set in the 1960s, and filmed with top-notch equipment for the time period, “Operation Avalanche” follows a team of CIA agents (led by writer/director Johnson and his friend from “The Dirties,” Owen Williams) as they infiltrate NASA headquarters by posing as a documentary film crew making a film about the upcoming Apollo mission. What do they learn after bugging the phones? That they can’t land on the moon. And that’s when Johnson gets an idea of his own…to make a film that illustrates walking on the moon and broadcast it as the real thing!

It’s so crazy it just might work…

OK, just for the record, I’m not one of those guys. I do believe we landed on the moon, and it was a major accomplishment not just for America for all of mankind. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to think about how it would’ve gone down if it were faked…

Look, it’s a movie. And it’s fun. And it’s interesting to see this interpretation, as far-fetched as it may be.

Matt Johnson definitely has a flair for the faux-documentary angle and for filmmaking overall. He made “The Dirties” look and feel exactly like a film that would be made by a bright (and deranged) high-schooler. He had loads of fun with fair use laws in his Vice mockumentary web series “Nirvanna the Band the Show,” showing he has guts. And with “Operation Avalanche,” which also served as his thesis film for grad school, he has fun with the time period–the resources, the tools, the wardrobe, the pop culture, the fact that it looks and feels like a top-secret documentary from the ’60s.

He’s one of my favorite filmmakers working today because of his drive and passion.

He’s also a good actor as well. Cocky, charismatic, and very naive (but credibly so). He plays the type of person who would be so gung-ho about breaking new ground in film creativity that he wouldn’t catch the obvious flaw, which is that if anyone even knew he organized the faking of the lunar landing, he’d be one of the most hated individuals alive…if his CIA superiors allow him to live much longer lest they sever all ties.

I haven’t even begun to cover two of the most important and interesting aspects of making this film. Let’s begin with…Kubrick.

The late famed director Stanley Kubrick is in this film. He had to be. There’s a theory that claims NASA used his special-effects knowhow from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to make the moon landing look as real as possible. How does this film cover that? Well, Johnson sneaks onto the set of “2001” to take notes on front-screen projection…and he also gets an autograph from Kubrick himself. And it’s not an actor playing Kubrick either–it’s the man himself!

No joke–Johnson and his crew took the few photographs (not video coverage) taken on the “2001” set and animated them with the actors on green-screen to inhabit them in the same universe. Thus, Johnson is able to walk on the actual set of one of the greatest game-changing movies of all time and interact with Stanley freaking Kubrick. (Eat your heart out, “Forrest Gump.”)

Not gutsy enough for you? How about this? All of the scenes set at NASA…were filmed at NASA! Johnson and co. shot on location, only getting permission because they claimed they were making a student documentary. (To get away with it, they brought in the same attorney that covered the fair-use laws for the anti-Disneyland film “Escape From Tomorrow.”)

I’m telling you–this guy’s got guts.

And I’ll be talking about “The Dirties” sooner or later…

One Response to “Looking Back at 2010s Films: Operation Avalanche (2016)”


  1. Prepping for My Top 20 Films of the 2010s | Smith's Verdict - November 26, 2019

    […] of Creativity!—“Sing Street,” “Operation Avalanche,” “A Star is Born,” “Birdman,” “Brigsby […]

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