Never has there been better subject matter for a mockumentary than the faking of the moon landing, as explored in Operation Avalanche, a new film by Matt Johnson. This comedy/thriller sees two young CIA agents in 1967 go undercover at NASA disguised as documentarians in order to uncover a suspected Russian mole. While there they discover that NASA doesn’t have the capability to put man on the moon by the end of the decade, as promised by JFK, so they hatch a plan to fake the whole affair in a film studio.
The conspiracy theory that the USA faked the Moon Landing is hardly a new one, and director Matt Johnson is certainly aware of any feelings viewers might have towards this idea and uses them to his advantage in this film. Johnson (who co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Boles) stars in the film using his real name, as does Boles and co-star Owen Williams. From the outset the film is toying with the viewer’s expectations and blurring the line between reality and fiction.
The film moves along at a brisk enough pace, and the writing is so technical and quick-witted that the audience is forced to abandon questions they have about the events being portrayed before moving on to the next part of the story. Eventually the viewer is lulled into a state of suggestibility, not unlike the American public the characters are hoping to deceive. Johnson also navigates the transition from comedy to thriller quite deftly and seamlessly. Most of the comedy is derived from the hapless antics of its leads but as the film progresses this is turned into tension as Johnson and Williams find themselves in way over their heads and potentially in danger.
While the film successfully ruminates on the idea of truth in the media and how that may be manipulated, sometimes there are too many things to think about to develop any kind of strong investment in the characters or what is happening to them. In its final act, when the film shifts entirely into thriller mode it is hard to feel like the movie has delivered on all the premises it throws at you in the first two acts. The piece becomes focused on the struggles of our heroes who, until now, were more conduits to ideas than characters we are encouraged to identify with. So as the credits role the viewer is left confused about how to feel about Operation Avalanche, which may in fact be the point.