Operation Avalanche (2016) Review

Operation Avalanche is a 2016 black comedy thriller about a pair of CIA operatives who go undercover in NASA to expose a potential mole but instead uncover a massive conspiracy to deceive the world entire.

Since the very moment Neil Armstrong stepped upon the surface of the Moon, there have been those who claim it never happened, that what we saw was only a top secret, professionally-made Hollywood-style simulation perpetrated by none other than legendary director Stanley Kubrick. With the recent Moonwalkers, another dark comedy about the same subject that came up short, the long-supported claim makes for great film fodder. With Operation Avalanche, a faux-documentary that acts like long lost proof that all it was a hoax, there is a real sense of urgency and more effectively, authenticity to the story that is a landmark in what it accomplishes even if it can’t sustain that same momentum in the plot itself.

READ MORE: Review of the moon landing conspiracy comedy Moonwalkers

It starts with what is arguably President Kennedy’s most famous speech, or at least the excerpt that everyone remembers. In it, he announces we will put a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth, not because it is easy but because it is hard. This not only becomes the backdrop for what follows but a theme for the people who find themselves deeply entangled in a mounting conspiracy that even becomes dangerous.

When the CIA suspects that a Russian mole has burrowed himself into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), two young and ambitious Audio/Visual agents Matt Johnson and Owen Williams (both played by actors using their real names), concoct a plan under the guise of a documentary to infiltrate the space program and uncover the spy, but along the way, they learn that NASA leaders are fearful that the projections for a Moon landing before the end of the decade can’t be reached. Wanting to secure the United States as the leader in space exploration and fulfill the president’s declaration, the men secretly begin a second plan that would, with the involvement of very select but crucial people, convince the world a man walked on the Moon using a faked landing.

Directed by Johnson, who also co-wrote, Operation Avalanche is a supremely clever film that certainly falls into the found footage genre but is much more like This Is Spinal Tap with a far more darker comedy and a leap into action. The film itself is a work of art imitating art as Johnson used a variety of guerrilla filmmaking techniques that earn praise enough, having earned permission from NASA to film on location by deceiving them into believing he was making a student documentary, using actual film technologies of the 1960s era, and then using archival footage and additional scenes by liberally applying fair-use laws, including scenes of Kubrick. The result is a transfixing amalgam of feircely funny dark comedy mixed with gripping thrills that visually make for a highly compelling experience despite some lags in the narrative.

Operation Avalanche
Operation Avalanche, 2016 © Lionsgate

Much of the success falls on the relationship of Johnson versus all others, as he plays it with almost hyper enthusiasm, which is compounded by the far more level performances of everyone else. This allows for the more familiar moments in the history of the event and better yet, the lining up of the more hotly-held aspects of actual Moon landing conspiracies, to be better sensationalized with rousing undercurrents of awe and surprise. As the story deepens and plots are unearthed that seem to suggest there is much more at stake, it leads to greater deceptions and a chilling end, including a nerve-rattling car chase through the back country.

Operation Avalanche is never once believable of course, nor is it entirely meant to be, instead expertly crafting a story that feels true with some impressive visual effects and use of old-school filming that lend a lot to the setting and tone. While the genre creates limitations, constantly forcing us to view events through peep holes and from shadows and jump-cutting from one expositional moment to the next, the film is a step above most and makes its shift from conspiracy padding to smart action just at the right time. For fans of a time when wonder pressed nations into feats of great exploration, this is a must see.

Operation Avalanche (2016)

Movie description: Operation Avalanche is a 2016 black comedy thriller about a pair of CIA operatives who go undercover in NASA to expose a potential mole but instead uncover a massive conspiracy to deceive the world entire.

Director(s): Matt Johnson

Actor(s): Matt Johnson, Owen Williams, Josh Boles

Genre: Black Comedy

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