Matt Johnson’s Operation Avalanche is a snake that cannily eats its own tale. The film is concerned with the simulation of an iconic cultural event, while existing, itself, as a simulation of a simulation, assuming the form of a mockumentary that’s supposed to offer proof that the Apollo 11 moon landing was faked, per the assertions of countless conspiracy theories. No, Stanley Kubrick didn’t shoot the footage, but a funhouse 1960s-era version of Johnson did, after sneaking onto the tightly guarded sets of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and learning the secrets of front-screen projection from the master himself, which could be used to make an earthly desert resemble the moon as pop culture has conditioned us to imagine it.
The story is less interesting than Johnson’s realization of it. The director convincingly splices real-life archival footage of NASA and other 1960s-era settings into staged scenes in which he and his friends portray ambitious C.I.A. film dweebs who’re desperate to make their mark, only to find themselves in hot water. The characters authentically appear to wander NASA’s halls and control rooms, and the surrounding décor lacks the distant, fussily art-directed quality of most fictional period films because the atmosphere is real, used to deliberately eclipse the staged material in our imaginations. The effect suggests a fusion of Zelig and JFK, and Johnson reaffirms the sense of out-of-time discombobulation with grainy, washed-out cinematography and a meta emphasis on images within images within images.
We see Johnson as he’s filmed for his documentary, for instance, and then, later, as he toils over these same images, editing the film that we’re watching. He fetishizes the period A/V equipment (the editing consoles, the large cameras, the endless knobs and dials, the playback monitors), deliberately recalling films like Blowup, The Conversation, and Blow Out—all of which concern heroes who rely on illusion for their careers, only to eventually seek the truth as an overcompensating moral gesture that gets them lost in an internal netherworld existing somewhere between fact and obsessive fantasy.
Johnson resonantly suggests that pop culture is indistinguishable from our surveillance state, as both are out of any single human’s control, self-perpetuating into stratospheres that depend on fiction that’s offered so reliably and regularly as to be accepted as truth. As Johnson says at one point in the film, how do we know what Sputnik sounds like? All we discern is what we’ve been offered by the media, and the same goes for the moon landing as well as anything else. When the film details Johnson’s shooting of the landing, it achieves a brilliance of feverishly lo-fi, hyper-detailed tactility. Johnson covers everything from the faking of Neil Armstrong’s footprint to the necessity of erasing the filmmakers’ reflections off of the astronauts’ helmets.
Watching Operation Avalanche, one feels as if we’re witnessing something forbidden while playing detective, parsing the frames for the interlopers who may be observing Johnson’s travails, waiting to pounce, seemingly springing from the recesses of hidden history. Most haunting is the moon set itself, defined mostly by an inky black sky-scape that suggests our reality to be a fabrication masking primordial nothingness.
The film attains a chilly existential quality as Johnson’s character discerns the weight of his actions, realizing that his inventiveness and self-absorption are aiding in the manipulation of hundreds of millions of people. Johnson charts how the space race represented a gasp of hope for a nation since mired in endless war and an escalating awareness of class enslavement that nurtures a pervading outlook of rage and futility. Operation Avalanche isn’t in the poetic league of its obvious forebears, and Johnson is cleverer as an illusionist than as a dramatist, but the film is a rarity: a found-footage gizmo that’s infused with mysterious agency, transcending its gimmicky origins.