Two young CIA agents go undercover at NASA in 1967 in order to root out a suspected Russian mole, and instead end up embroiled in a conspiracy of their own making. That sounds pretty cool — I’m always a sucker for space stuff and paranoia — but this would-be suspense-thriller mockumentary is more an exercise in “look how film-school cool and clever we are” than anything else. Director and cowriter (with Josh Boles) Matt Johnson casts himself as “director” of a faux documentary about the Apollo program as cover for the spy mission — Owen Williams plays his partner — which uncovers the top-secret “fact” that the space agency has hit technical roadblocks and won’t make it to the moon before the 1970s. So the agents concoct a plan to fake moon-landing footage themselves, and in such a way that even most of NASA (such as the people in mission control) don’t even realize that men are only orbiting the moon and not actually landing on it. (Their plan requires the complicity of the astronauts, obviously.)
Much of Operation Avalanche — that’s the code name the agents give their scheme — is meant, I suspect, to be something of a black comedy about how a pushy and audacious asshole like Johnson’s operative is subverting what is allegedly a triumph of gung-ho science and clean-cut all-American Right Stuff-ism. It doesn’t quite work on that level, because it’s never actually funny, not even in a snide, bitter way. And the film’s mock-documentary conceit falls down in ways that undercut the paranoia that is allegedly mounting as the agents fear that Avalanche’s success, should it come to pass, will mean that the CIA will off them in order to maintain the secret. (Why obsessively document how they are covering their own tracks? That footage only creates more tracks to be covered!)
But the larger failing of the film, the one that ultimately kills it, is that Operation Avalanche is merely spinning out an Apollo hoax “theory” that is nothing new. A mention of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick early in Avalanche is a clue to where it is heading — the notion that Kubrick helped NASA fake the 1969 moon-landing footage enjoys a robust life in the more idiotic corners of the Internet — and it never finds anything new to say beyond that. Operation Avalanche turns an already well-worn conspiracy theory into a shaggy-dog story. There is no payoff in the end.
All Avalanche has is a commendable mounting of the period on, presumably, a very low budget, as well as an impressive use of practical FX and, apparently, technology (such as cameras) of the era. But even that comes with a rather distasteful self-congratulatory tone. The CIA hoaxers’ names are “Matt Johnson” and “Owen Williams” — cinematographers Andrew Appelle and Jared Raab also play CIA camera operators of the same names — which is downright bizarre. These young men wouldn’t have yet been born in the 1960s, so there’s no possibility that we might be fooled into thinking that they are playing themselves and that there’s nothing “mock” about Operation Avalanche. Is Johnson likening them all, though, to men clever enough and skilled enough to have fooled the entire world into believing Neil Armstrong actually walked on the moon? That’s more than a bit of a stretch, and when the film has nothing other than good looks to recommend it, it’s more than a bit impudent.