I want you to do something for me. Won’t take a second but it might destroy your mind. I want you to go to Google and type in Conspiracy Theory. Just count the number of results that come up. I got just shy of 9 million. In the age of mass communication the internet has given a soap box to anyone willing to scream about hidden agendas ranging from lizard overlords to fluoride in the drinking water. Most can be classified by the technical term ‘mental’. It’s not so much the theories that people come up with; it’s the number of people they convince to agree with them. A Gallup poll from 1999 showed that 5% of American’s believe that the Moon Landing was faked, another 6% were undecided; meaning that 30,690,000 people question Neil Armstrong jumping around up there.
Now ain’t that depressing.
However, within this depressing setting is the bases for the film Operation Avalanche (2016), a found-footage/mockumentary affair.
Owen Williams (Himself) and Matt Johnston (Himself), are two young agents in the CIA A/V department. Johnston, the more ambitious of the two, pitches the idea of sending an undercover team, posing as filmmakers, to hunt down a Soviet mole within the Apollo Mission. While investigating, Johnston discovers that NASA will have to push back the Apollo Mission by years, giving the USSR the lead they need. Its then that Johnson makes a bold pitch to his superiors; fake the Moon Landing. The rocket will go up as scheduled, the crew of Apollo 11 will go around the moon but instead broadcast a pre-recorded film Johnston and Williams will produce; the world will think that NASA and the US have won the moon race. Despite the insanity of the idea, Johnston and Williams’ bosses green light it. Williams begins to suspect there is something going on in the background, which they are just a smaller part of a much larger conspiracy; was there a soviet mole at NASA or was this part of a much larger plan to cover a possible failure in the Apollo mission? It is only when the footage is completed that Johnston begins to see how far the CIA will go to keep the truth hidden.
Okay, that’s the plot. What about the film?
In a way this reminds me of Capricorn One (1977), a movie starring Elliot Gould and O.J Simpson about a faked mission to Mars and the conspiracy built around it. This was back when you could watch a movie with O.J Simpson in it and not feel bad about yourself.
Found-footage films tend to be of the bargain bucket variety of film, a cheap gimmick for the sell rather than the narrative. There are exceptions to this; Ghostwatch (1991), District 9 (2009), and End of the Watch (2012) shows how to do it properly, but for every Trollhunter (2010) there are five Paranormal Activities.
So where does Operation Avalanche sit? Kind of in the middle.
Like many found-footage films it suffers from “Why the hell are you recording that?” syndrome. We’ve all done it, whether they’re running from a monster to a personal conversation you know it’s best that no one should ever see. Operation Avalanche records Johnston forging the signatures of CIA heads, the team planting bugs in phones, lock picking their way into NASA, and filming the biggest hoax ever perpetrated, obviously to use as a gag reel for the CIA’s Christmas Party. It reaches a point where it doesn’t make any sense anymore and I found myself questioning if it was still found-footage or had dropped it and not told us.
It works hard to capture the aesthetic of the late to mid Sixties with a grainy 8mm filter slapped over the Blackmagic Pocket Camera and the crackly audio of Sixties analogue recordings. On the flip side, however, scenes are improvised to give it the off the cuff feel but become laden down with modern anachronisms at the worst possible time, blowing apart the illusion that this is the 1960’s.
There are several little nods to the Moon Land Hoax theories; some completely subverting the ideas such as the Kubrick Theory. The idea goes that Kubrick was brought in to direct the footage, after the success of 2001 (1968), but here the film turns it on its head. It’s a nice little nod; would have been nicer still if they hadn’t turned round to camera and basically told you they were subverting it.
The famous Galileo experiment, which Moon Conspirators claim was achieved with a lead feather is thrown in for good measure. Including the theories might lend the film a level of supposed realism but I can’t help but feel that there is someone, somewhere screaming that this movie proves the moon landings where faked.
Yet despite its middling found-footage and being parallel universe Mythbusters, Operation Avalanche is still an enjoyable film. Not great but still enjoyable.
You would be forgiven into thinking you are watching a comedy-drama for the first half hour but somewhere, gradually, it changes into a conspiracy thriller. The moment you realise this is the same moment Johnston realises how ruthless his superiors are, when they casually mention the backup operation is to shoot down Apollo 11 and blame it on the Soviets. Johnson’s schoolboy enthusiasm evaporates as Williamson pieces together the deaths connected to the Apollo mission. Usually films that start of one way but end the other are forced, dead films but in Avalanche it flows. We’ve seen movies where the sudden twist-turns completely rewrites the film. Here, however, it paces itself, taking its time, building to the climax that has become the only possible option left for the story.
Johnston is the main character, while Williamson slips further and further into the background. Williamson has the more interesting story; a new father, he has the most to lose by being involved with the operation but why doesn’t he get up and leave? Because he’s trapped and knows it; he’s the first to realises they’re part a much grander conspiracy, he knows they can’t walk away from it, one way or another.
It’s not a great film but it’s not a bad one either which says a lot in this day and age. It’s not often you get conspiracy fiction these days and the idea of hoaxes ring deeper today in the age of fake news allegations and media mistrust. But, when it comes to conspiracy fiction, I’ll be holding out for the Jackie Onassis killing Kennedy film.
Dir: Matt Johnson
Scr: Matt Johnson, Josh Boles
Cast: Matt Johnson, Owen Williams, Josh Boles
Prd: Matthew Miller, Lee Kim, Matt Johnson
DOP: Andy Appelle, Jared Raab
Music: Jay McCarrol
Country: Canada, USA
Runtime: 94 minutes
Lionsgate UK presents Operation Avalanche on Digital Download 6th March and DVD from 20th March, 2017