One of the most notable Sundance premieres of the last few years was Rodney Ascher's notorious experimental documentary Room 237, a riveting exploration of four fan conspiracy theories developed around Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. The nuttiest of those theories contended that The Shining was Kubrick's secret confession about having faked the 1969 Apollo moon landing. Now comes Operation Avalanche, writer-director-star Matt Johnson's creative “mockumentary” about two hapless CIA men and film buffs who, with a key assist from their hero Kubrick ... wind up faking the Apollo moon landing.
Operation Avalanche is a sly little comedy-thriller, but, also like Room 237, it’s an act of movie love. “The moon landing is the greatest movie ever made,” Johnson tells me in a Sundance condo, his boyish enthusiasm echoing the eager cheerfulness of the film-buff character he plays in the movie (a character named, appropriately enough, Matt Johnson). “What piece of cinema is more famous than Neil Armstrong walking on the moon?” The only other possible contender is probably the one that gave Johnson’s production company its name: Zapruder Films.
Indeed, Johnson’s film could be seen as a tribute to the supremacy of the moving picture image, even though it takes great liberties with that image. The director seamlessly incorporates his own footage — often shot in handheld, rough fashion — with archival footage to recreate the late 1960s on a dime. When our characters get on the road in a car, we see cutaways to period automobiles, road signs, buildings, etc., much of it taken, Johnson tells me, from the archives of the National Film Board of Canada. To some, Operation Avalanche might look like simply a more artful version of the found-footage thrillers that have clogged theaters for years — a trend kicked off a decade-and-a-half ago by yet another Sundance hit, The Blair Witch Project. But thanks to its subject matter, humor, and Johnson’s clever blending of styles, Avalanche has an impressive, playful sense of authenticity.
When we first meet the Matt Johnson of the film, he’s working for the CIA’s A/V team along with his close friend Owen (Owen Williams) in a room adorned with posters of Lolita and Lawrence of Arabia. They are helping investigate Kubrick and Dr. Strangelove — an actual thing that the CIA did back in the day — when they finds out their employers are planning to send an agent into NASA to hunt down a possible Soviet mole. Our heroes have a better idea. Any Soviet spy worth his salt will be able to sniff out another professional spy, so why not send them in, posing as filmmakers working on a documentary about NASA? They will get better access, and they'll be inconspicuous, mainly because they’re too clueless to be actual spies. As they themselves put it: “We need to send people who look like they don’t know what’s going on.”
The film’s most impressive element is how well Johnson has conjured up this world, including much of the footage in and around NASA. “We knew that NASA would release all that footage to us,” he says, “because it’s a government institution and they were happy to. And we knew modern editing and coloring technology would let us match anything we wanted to it. Honestly, I’m surprised more people haven’t done this. This movie didn’t cost a lot of money.” The result also gives the film an added meta kick: Here’s a movie about convincing the world of the reality of a constructed image, which uses “real” images to convince us of its own constructed reality.
When they get to NASA, the filmmakers (the team also includes Josh Boles, the film’s co-writer) discover that the space agency is much, much farther away from getting a man on the moon than it had promised. And time is running out: The late John F. Kennedy had promised a man on the moon by decade’s end (we see that iconic bit of footage as the film opens, in a montage that pays homage to Oliver Stone’s JFK, one of Johnson’s all-time favorite films) and they’ll all be breaking that promise if they fail to achieve this goal. They’ll also be giving the Soviets an easy win in the propaganda wars.
The problem, we learn, isn’t getting to the moon, but landing on it; the Americans still haven’t developed the type of fuel necessary for getting on and off, and they’re at least five years away from doing so. So our heroes concoct a plan to create footage of the landing on Earth, and then splice it into the NASA feed during the thirty minutes when the Apollo will be out of radio contact on the dark side of the moon; in other words, even many of the people in Mission Control will be fooled.
What follows is akin to a making-of movie, albeit one inflected with a growing sense of paranoia — think Living in Oblivion meets The Conversation. As the filmmakers do research to find the right kind of sand for the moon, the right location to shoot, the right props to use, the right way for the astronauts to walk, as well as the right dialogue for the astronauts to utter, they also begin to realize that they’re being watched. Is it the KGB? Is it the CIA? Someone else?
Matt and his team also discover that their hero Kubrick is working on the space movie that will eventually become 2001: A Space Odyssey. When they learn that Kubrick is using a newfangled visual effects process called front projection, they decide to infiltrate Shepperton Studios in England, where the production of 2001 is underway under heavy security. Their front: They pretend to be interviewing the NASA advisers Kubrick is using for 2001. As Johnson’s character puts it, unable to contain his giddiness. “Kubrick is using NASA to make sure his space movie looks like real space. So we’re going to use his space movie to make sure the real space movie looks like space!”
“Putting Kubrick in the film came from necessity,” the real Matt Johnson now recalls. “We couldn’t really have him be a character in the movie, and yet he’s so woven into the fabric of this conspiracy that we had to address it somehow.” He adds: “And when we found out the CIA was actually investigating Kubrick and Dr. Strangelove, it started to click.” Actually incorporating the director into the film, however, came with immense logistical challenges, because they didn’t want an actor playing him. Kubrick didn’t like to be photographed and filmed, particularly during the production of 2001. “That place was like a military base,” Johnson says. “There is next to no surviving film footage of Kubrick from that time period. Peter Sellers shot some, his wife shot some, and there was some from a Time magazine piece. But even at its best quality, that footage wasn’t powerful enough for us to composite our footage against.”
As a result, Johnson and his team incorporated their footage with famous still photographs. “If you google ‘Kubrick behind the scenes 2001,’” he says, “you’ll see the nine environments that Tristan [Zerafa, the film’s visual effects supervisor] created, digitally. Some of them we rebuilt on a set, and some of them we did digitally. I would just behave in those environments, with Tristan telling me how to behave, what to react to. It was a hugely involved process for what amounted to something like 90 seconds of footage.”
Operation Avalanche is, in the end, a clever entertainment, but all the work that Johnson, Boles, and co. have put in — the savvy recreations and incorporation, the documentary-style filming, not to mention plugging into a world of conspiracies both imagined and real — gives it extra resonance. For what emerges is a portrait of a time period when our whole relationship with the filmed image was beginning to change. Americans had already seen a president shot on TV. They would soon see men walking on the moon, even as they also saw images of death and destruction in Vietnam. The earnest enthusiasm with which Operation Avalanche begins, and the paranoia and fear toward which it proceeds, chart the course of an entire nation.