MONTREAL — Conspiracy theories give order to a chaotic world, and provide reason to events that can often seem incomprehensible. But viewed from a distance, and removed from any political and cultural baggage, they are also just ripping good yarns. And it’s from that remove that writer/director Matt Johnson was inspired to make “Operation Avalanche,” which takes on the fables spun around the Apollo 11 mission, but as he made clear in the Q&A following the film’s Quebec Premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival, he doesn’t believe for one second the moon landing was faked. However, Johnson approached the film with the simple question of: “What if?” And from there he unravels an impressively dense mockumentary about two CIA agents who wind up in way over their heads with the turning point in the Cold War and reputation of a nation cradled in their hands.
Matt (Matt Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams) are a couple of low-level CIA agents who have just wrapped up Operation Deep Red, an investigation into Stanley Kubrick (just the first of the film’s nods to the cinematic master who is often cited by tinfoil hat types for being involved in NASA’s plan to hoodwink the world). Eager to take on something that will get them more notice in the agency, and perhaps even their own department, they make a pitch to join the ongoing Operation Zipper, the CIA’s efforts to find the Russian mole inside NASA, by posing as a documentary film crew. However, once they get there, Matt and Owen make their own shocking discovery, leading to the clandestine Operation Avalanche, a mission that puts them in the crosshairs of their own government, as they get involved in faking the moon landing.
That’s really just the start of the story that unfolds in “Operation Avalanche,” that eventually reaches the sort of multi-layered levels of duplicity and narrative that would make Christopher Nolan proud. But there’s a distinct sense of joy in Johnson’s picture; you can practically see the writer/director beaming through the frame (it certainly helps that he plays the lead role) as he finds yet another way to twist the story, or an opportunity to push the already high-concept picture right to the edges of credulity, without tipping it over.
Much of the narrative around Johnson to date has been his immersive and sometimes illegal production methods. For his unnerving and audacious debut, the school shooting drama “The Dirties” was shot inside a real high school, but without the students’ knowledge that they were being filmed. And while “Operation Avalanche” saw Johnson covertly shoot segments at NASA and Shepperton Studios, it speaks to the accomplishment of the filmmaking that those elements, and the found footage aesthetic, never overwhelm the movie. They are great added texture, but if Johnson and his team had shot the film traditionally, it would work just as well.
And much of that is because for all the on-the-fly filmmaking, Johnson creates characters that are just as thought through as the environments and framework in which they are presented. Matt, who finds a way to work filmmaking into all of his CIA projects, is a devoted film buff, and Johnson underscores this passion for his character by peppering the walls of his office with posters for “The Stranger,” “Le Mepris,” “Lolita,” “Dr. Strangelove” and more. But that passion to do something creatively ambitious in the agency fractures his relationship with Owen, his best friend, and it’s the fraying bond between them that provides the kind of emotional center that movies in this particular style don’t always possess.
However, for all the thought put into the structure, script and finely detailed world this film takes place in, “Operation Avalanche” stumbles with finding a conclusion. The sense of wonder of seeing the plan to fake the moon landing come together peaks in the middle of the movie, when Matt lays out every facet of what’s required to pull it off. It’s nonetheless a terrific moment that manages a remarkable double feat of selling one half of your brain on where the second half of the movie will go, while the other half marvels at how the scene also acts as a flat out debunking of conspiracy theorists. There is simply no way, in the real world, that it could’ve happened, given the amount of people and resources that would’ve been required. Meanwhile, the increasingly paranoid panic in the film’s back end, as Matt and Owen face severe danger, sort of peters out, rather than culminating in a climatic punch.
Work from Canadian filmmakers tends to generally have a reputation of being nutritious; good for you, but not necessarily fun to eat. However, Matt Johnson represents a break from that tradition. While it might be a stretch to call his pictures to date mainstream, they represent a desire to be wholly entertaining, while also offering a challenge to the audience to come along for a unique experience as Johnson pushes the edges of expected filmmaking boundaries. It’s exciting to watch. And that’s not to say to check out “Operation Avalanche” simply because Johnson dares to be different, but also because it’s just really good, confirming that the writer/director/actor is one to keep on your radar. [B]