Anyone who’s seen Rodney Ascher’s “Room 237” will be familiar with the lunatic conspiracy theory that Stanley Kubrick helped fake the Apollo 11 moon landing. (“The Shining,” according to the theorist in Ascher’s film, was Kubrick’s veiled confession.) Matt Johnson’s clever found-footage mockumentary “Operation Avalanche” posits a different but related theory, that a couple of cinephiliac CIA agents dropped by the set of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” where they gained key insights into the front projection technology that would allow them to convincingly fake footage of America landing on the moon.
Johnson, who also stars in the film as “himself,” is also engaged in some high-concept fakery. “Operation Avalanche” is composed of faked behind-the-scenes footage showing Johnson and Owen Williams (also playing “himself”) doing their damnedest to the fight the Cold War by tricking the world into believing a lie. Johnson creates a highly convincing simulacrum of the 1960s. It’s not that “Operation Avalanche” feels like real lost footage—the concept is too goofy; there’s too much footage that would have been impossible to obtain; and it’s edited together too neatly—but it does produce a surprisingly potent evocation of 16mm documentary footage. Even more impressive is that Johnson, with co-screenwriter Josh Boles (who also appears in the film), has developed a weirdly convincing explanation as to how such a ridiculous conspiracy could ever have been pulled off: rank careerism.
“Matt,” and to a lesser extent “Owen,” are motivated by raw ambition. (An opening title indicates that they were selected for the CIA for exactly this reason.) Their greatest asset is not any particular aptitude for filmmaking or spycraft but simple opportunism. “Matt” in particular never misses a chance to advance himself by pitching some wild scheme. The narrative is kicked in motion when he convinces his boss that the best way to ferret out a Soviet spy in NASA’s Apollo program is to send “Owen” and himself to Johnson Space Center to pose as a documentary crew. Later, “Matt” takes wild chances all because his only motivation is the advancement of his own career.
Most conspiracy theories break down because they ignore human psychology. The major insight of “Operation Avalanche” is to base a conspiracy entirely on the primary conspiracist’s personal ambition. So often movies about conspiracies depict the perpetrators as shadowy deep-state bureaucrats—faceless men in suits with no personalities or interests. A few of these types eventually appear in “Operation Avalanche,” but the film is really about “Matt” and the way he is able to unite his personal ambition with his interest in cinema to create one of the great hoaxes of all time.
“Operation Avalanche” drags a bit, particularly when it gets caught up in more conventional espionage business, but the film is animated by the unalloyed excitement of deception. For “Matt,” faking the moon landing isn’t grim business; it’s a total joy! He’s like a director making his first film, scouting locations, building props, and finding clever solutions to creative problems. That raw passion carries over to the film itself. Johnson is incredibly resourceful and takes obvious delight in faking the look and feel of the ‘60s. Like “Matt,” he’s also incredibly resourceful, pulling off an impressive feat of high-concept trickery and having a blast doing it.