Matt Johnson’s prankish Operation Avalanche boasts a strong half-hour of footage that’s fully engaged with this question: Could a couple of bright, Kubrick-obsessed a.v. geeks have faked the moon landing in 1969? Like the best speculative fiction, these scenes concern the practicalities. We see the gang’s hidden-camera peek at the London set of 2001 and then the front-projection technique that Kubrick’s technicians worked up to create, among other wonders, their astronauts-on-the-lunar surface sequence. We see the shooting of desert test footage, a dude in a space-suit prancing and hopping for a slow-speed camera; we see the construction of a lunar module and the slow composition, in a hilarious montage, of Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man” speech. Formalists above all else, Johnson and his co-writer, Josh Boles, even make a plot point out of the trickiness of transferring film to video for transmittal to Earth from a moon-orbiting Apollo 11 — see, the astronauts will really launch, they just won’t actually land.
All that’s fascinating. But that great leap for mankind isn’t the fakery that most interests Johnson. Operation Avalanche‘s other hour, a muddled and deflating near-narrative, is after something much trickier than alt-history horseplay. He seems committed to a challenge almost as daunting as the let’s-win-space one JFK called for in ’62: He’s trying to craft a period picture that, in its individual shots, does not reveal the year in which it was actually made. Operation Avalanche is the latest — and most ambitious — in a long line of high-concept found-footage fake-documentary stunts. It’s uncommonly convincing, in individual moments: The leads (Johnson and Owen Williams) look like everyday people, rather than actors, and their ’60s wardrobes are stubbornly un-stylish, the square duds of low-rank CIA types. The first scenes, of a CIA audio-visual team trying to get approval to go undercover at NASA, are shot on black-and-white Super 8; once they get funding, Operation Avalanche smash-cuts into full-screen color, a thrilling moment even if it wasn’t scored to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Soon, for reasons that play out a bit too dopily, the pals are placed in charge of a singular act of lying through film.
Johnson shot, under some false pretenses, at actual NASA facilities, and works in some convincing glimpses of ’69 Kubrick himself, consulting with his crew, his visage sourced fair-use style from photographs. What we see isn’t showy, for the most part, and the footage appears aged and imperfect — these characters, it suggests, were documenting themselves rather than the year that they lived in. Yes, there’s more close-ups of reel-to-reels and vintage editing consoles than filmmakers in 1969 might have bothered with, as this equipment was not alien to them, but just looking at this footage you wouldn’t know it’s from now — much of Operation Avalanche could have been faked in ’76 or ’96, which is itself an achievement.
The form, though, is straight-up 2016. Johnson has chosen to source every shot in his characters’ cameras. He does a better job than most in explaining why his narcissists film their every moment — they’re changing history — but he still offers his share of the usual found-footage howlers. Top brass threatens to shoot down Apollo 11 if the stunt doesn’t work, which isn’t the kind of thing you say with a camera in the room; several times, we see footage of Johnson’s heroes, in a panic, burying the footage that they’ve already shot — but they’re still shooting that footage, which also presumably must be buried. In dialogue scenes in the crew’s office, which are loose and smartly un-expository, the camera bobs behind venetian blinds one room over, its operator somehow not observed when officials come in to discuss top-secret craziness. (And everything and everyone is always perfectly audible — these guys could have become billionaires in the tiny-microphone business.)
The technique makes Operation Avalanche something of a must-watch for gear-heads and film junkies. For regular audiences, though, I fear it kills much of the storytelling. Johnson aspires to a tricky mix of buddy comedy, conspiracy thriller and even action film — a late car-chase is a smart, disorienting blur. But since we only see what his characters film, we never get them unguarded, at home, and never learn who they are or why we should care about them. Structurally, the script is a mess, not bothering to introduce a compelling reason for the team to be faking the moon landing until 47 minutes have passed. And the cold-war plotting is a wearying muddle, with much hissed whispering about moles and intimations of a larger, nastier conspiracy: The one-scene bureaucrat who gets fingered as the mole may not be the mole, and steel yourself for a sequence of the good guys splicing together a reel of footage to make it all make sense.
It’s often more The Office than le Carré, and none of it’s anywhere as interesting as the great counter-historical gag at the film’s heart. Why not give us more time witnessing the moment-to-moment decision-making that would have gone into faking the most famous video broadcast in human history? The epic, crackling silence of Armstrong’s spacewalk, his ponderous yet buoyant strides, the curious camera placement behind a strut of the lander, the tilted perspective that emphasizes the curvature of the lunar horizon — these would have been artistic choices, brilliant deceptions much like the ones these filmmakers engage in when staging a 1969 pool party. Too bad they didn’t work more of their own expertise into the story.
Directed by Matt Johnson
Opens September 16