Directors ► Matt Johnson
Writers ► Matt Johnson, Josh Boles
Genre ► Thriller, Found Footage, Conspiracy
Release Date ► 2016-01-22 (Sundance), 2016-09-16 (Theaters), 2017-01-03 (Blu-Ray, DVD, Digital)
Running Time ► 94 minutes (1 hr, 34 min)
Vintage, mundane, and engrossing, Operation Avalanche is all of these things and both more and less. This little indie film about the supposed faking of the Apollo 11 moon landing and the people who did it starts off weak before it gradually builds up into greatness. As such, this is a tale of two movies that will probably scare away many viewers in the first 20-30 minutes as the hooks don’t latch themselves into you until the second and third acts . It’s a shame since there is a great thriller to be seen here, especially if you’re into historical fiction and can entertain the notion of this long running conspiracy.
Two young CIA agents infiltrate NASA during the space race in the 1960’s to potentially expose a Russian mole looking to steal plans to return and benefit Russia. During their mission, they learn that NASA lacks the technology to land a man on the moon. One of the agents devises a plan to fake the moon landing for NASA, but as they carry on their new mission, the secrets and stakes revealed become more than the small team can handle.
The plot struggles to find solid footing at first but then once it does, it’s compelling and engrossing. Matt Johnson gives a great performance as the lead agent full of ambition and gumption, but little precaution or morality. He drives the movie forward and is the highlight of the film. You know he’s leading his team down a hole they eventually won’t be able to get out of but you admire his confidence and inability to take “no” for an answer. Owen Williams as the more conservative agent gives a notable performance as well as he isn’t pushed around or put-upon as this type of role typically would have him be. If anything, he has his violent outbursts that show he can be just as rash as his partner.
However, all of this is learned as the movie goes on and this is the reason why the movie lags in its first act. We’re given no explanation or introduction to these characters or this situation and we’re also not given a reason why to care. Only as stuff slowly starts to come together in the snippets of footage does a motive, incentive, and personality start to become clear. It’s not that it’s too challenging; it’s not at all. It’s that it’s not challenging enough. Nothing in the first act challenges the viewer to stay invested, to care, or to wonder. It’s a notable blotch on the film that does the eventual compelling story, characters, and cinematography a disservice.
The film utilizes a found footage style, specifically making it look like it was filmed using cameras from the time period. The movie takes place entirely from the perspective of a third agent, who is filming all of the events in the film for a documentary. This means that the cameraman is actually a character in the movie, and this becomes more apparent as the movie goes on. Although he doesn’t speak much, he still emotes through his camerawork and the way he frames events and the world around those events. He gives context to the setting and the time period, something the two main characters don’t do, and as a result, he simultaneously is a character in the movie and movie’s character. It’s easily the strongest point of the movie and arguably the scene stealing person in the movie.
One of the most interesting things of the movie is the fact that some of the film was shot at NASA. Some of the footage where they introduce themselves as documentary filmmakers is actually real. It’s interesting how real life imitated art, and it’s that kind of dedication that gives this film a lot of heart as well as a lot of its problems. Sure, all of this is for entertainment and the movie struggles to sell its initial first impression, but this does become a worthwhile experience as it grows towards its inevitable yet entertaining conclusion which doesn’t give a feeling of closure but does offer a proper bookend to the film. An ultimately riveting watch.