Imagine the CIA faked the moon landing. Imagine a behind-the-scenes documentary was made chronicling the making of that fake film. Imagine we found that footage. That’s Operation Avalanche, one of the most audacious films I saw this year at Sundance and one of the best films, too.
Operation Avalanche follows a quintet of CIA agents who, while searching for a Soviet mole within NASA, discover that NASA is unable to land on the moon and return home fast enough to beat the USSR. The agents have the bright idea to fake the moon landing using their filmmaking knowledge. Their cover at NASA is as a documentary film crew, so they keep the cameras rolling as they fake the moon landing. So Operation Avalanche is a found-footage, mockumentary about the greatest cover-up in history.
The filmmakers—Matt Johnson, Josh Boles, Owen Williams, Andrew Appelle, and Jared Raab—made the film by posing as documentary filmmakers at NASA and Shepperton Studios (because of course Stanley Kubrick makes an appearance in this film). They filmed inside Mission Control and the hallways of NASA. They shot on the sound stages Kubrick used to make 2001: A Space Odyssey. They didn’t have permission to do any of this, but in the spirit of their narrative about filmmakers shooting a film clandestinely, they did it anyway and used it in their film. Operation Avalanche blends fiction and reality in a way that serves both the film’s plot and theme.
The friendship between Matt Johnson and Owen Williams is the core of the film. Johnson’s ambition causes him to both brainstorm this lunar lie and endanger the lives of him and his friends. Operation Avalanche is about how ambition can blind someone to reality. This tendency of ambitious people is what convinces Matt that they can trick the American public in this way – America wants to believe it can get to the moon first, so they don’t question the footage they see of the moon landing. Operation Avalanche is a smart film.
It is also a enormously entertaining film. It demonstrates a keen sense of visual humor, which is all the more remarkable considering the off-the-cuff style of the film. Humor depends on timing, and even though the footage was captured on-the-fly, every joke hits. There are similarly astounding action scenes, including a car chase done in a single take that is as good as anything in Children of Men. Operation Avalanche feels loose and free, but this is the fluidity that comes from sharp artistic talent.
Operation Avalanche is the most fun I had at any movie at Sundance. It’s enthusiastic filmmaking that makes you delight at the ingenuity of these artists and aspire to be as joyful, adventurous, and thorough in your own work. Because of what it’s about, it also makes you hope to be humble lest your endeavors drive you to hazard the ones you love.
Operation Avalanche will be in theaters this coming summer. It was picked up by Lionsgate. Don’t miss it.