Sundance Film Review: ‘Operation Avalanche’

VarietyLogo1“Operation Avalanche” doesn’t mark the first time director Matt Johnson and Owen Williams have played “themselves,” although it’s hard to imagine a more inventive use of the duo’s reality-blurring faux-doc sensibility, which previously earned them top honors at Slamdance 2013 for “The Dirties.” Pretending to be the film crew that faked the Apollo 11 moon landing, Johnson and company have fabricated an elaborate, period-styled backstory on how a collection of Ivy League film geeks were recruited by the CIA to convince the world that America got there first. Acquired by Lionsgate eight months before its Park City premiere, this wild, borderline-illegal stunt (for which the improv-ready filmmakers “infiltrated” locations such as NASA and Shepperton Studios in character) delivers big time on its crazy premise, launching the careers of its renegade crew in the process.

Arriving a full 17 years after “The Blair Witch Project,” “Operation Avalanche” demonstrates there’s still plenty of room left within the found-footage format to craft fresh, high-concept projects, regardless of the fact that no one’s falling for their alleged authenticity any longer. In this case, the artificiality actually compounds the joke, since the movie poses as a re-creation of one of the most infamous hoaxes of all time — although no one involved in its making believes those conspiracy theorists who claim that NASA lied about their widely televised 1969 moon landing.

Although such simulated documentaries have become all too ubiquitous of late, there’s a certain logic in employing that format to explore the intersection of ego and cinephilia in the late ’60s, when cameras and sound equipment first became versatile enough that tech-savvy narcissists suddenly found a new means to navel-gaze — as evidenced by such early examples as “David Holzman’s Diary” (1967), “Medium Cool” (1969) and “Hi, Mom!” (1970). Johnson and co-writer Josh Boles’ own “The Dirties” caught up with that sort of on-camera narcissism several decades later, following a couple of teenage outcasts as they plot (and film) getting back at their high-school rivals, and while the technique felt played out by that point, “Operation Avalanche” cleverly returns the conceit to its roots, once again inventing characters who manipulatively use cinema to frame, edit and rewrite the reality of their own lives.

Using their own names, Johnson and Williams play the CIA’s inaugural A/V department — a team of socially awkward film buffs drafted from the nation’s top universities at the apex of the Cold War to assist with a series of special investigations. After proving that Stanley Kubrick is not a spy, the duo catch wind of the fact that the country’s space program could be in jeopardy, giving the Russians the edge in the neck-and-neck race to the moon. Eager for more responsibility, they propose a plan to thwart a Soviet traitor believed to be sabotaging the Americans’ advantage from within. The idea: Along with two cameramen who practically never stop filming, they’ll pose as a civilian documentary crew and use that access to expose the mole.

Ironically, Johnson and his team perpetrated nearly the same con in order to shoot those scenes, telling NASA that they were making a film about the Apollo missions, then showing up for informational visits dressed in character and ready to roll. That ruse, coupled with a “Forrest Gump”-style blending of archival material and freshly lensed verite-style footage, allowed them to simulate a number of key sequences, ranging from an argument in Mission Control to a nonexistent interview with NASA chief James Webb.

The real coup, courtesy of superhero-movie vfx whiz Tristan Zerafa (“Man of Steel”), comes from a similar strike on Shepperton Studios, where digital trickery results in a scene where Williams demands an autograph from Kubrick himself. That visit gives the characters the idea of using the same front-projection technology Kubrick employed on “2001: A Space Odyssey” to create a convincing lunar surface on a soundstage — their solution to a drastic setback in which Webb, overheard via wiretap, admits that the U.S. is at least four years behind schedule in its moon-landing plans.

With the mole still at large, they turn their attention to simulating Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, staging a sequence designed to fool not just global TV audiences, but also NASA itself. From where we stand, it all looks unbelievably phony, featuring a science-fair-grade Apollo 11 replica built from cardboard tubes and aluminum foil (although it does give them an excuse to play with vintage cameras and film technology, which extends to the Super 16 output pass they did in post). Happily enough, the various technical shortcomings actually render “Operation Avalanche” all the more hilarious, asking us to accept not only that the CIA would greenlight such a massive deception, but that they would allow such an undisciplined bunch of jokers to take the lead, conveniently overlooking the fact these narcissists have been documenting nearly every step of their ultra-classified activities via a pair of film cameras.

Aesthetically speaking, the film is just one small step from amateur home-movie status, as young actors in awkward-fitting ’60s G-man costumes run around improvising Cold War mumbo-jumbo (complete with vintage-sounding accents), feigning panic over how the CIA is determined to make them disappear. At the same time, it’s an undeniable leap forward from “The Dirties,” as the actors commits so deeply to their wacky assignment that we can’t help but go along with the craziness, especially as it escalates from back-room paranoia to an intense — and genuinely dangerous-looking — climactic car chase. Laced with in-jokes for film and history buffs alike, “Operation Avalanche” may not cause us to question the veracity of the Apollo 11 landing, but it certainly convinces that these guys can scale their ambitions far beyond the agreed-upon limits of a micro-budget. Going forward, the sky’s the limit.