If I’d never had Operation Avalanche recommended to me by an old friend, chances are I might never have watched it. I’d seen some promotional materials for it, even read the synopsis early last year before it was released by Lionsgate, but a found-footage conspiracy drama about the faking of the first moon landing just didn’t grab me. Well, cut to January 16, 2017, and I’ve just watched it. There are a few things to like, but it does fall short of being a worthwhile 80 minutes.
The conceit of the movie is that two low-level CIA agents, Matt Johnson and Owen Williams, are sent on mission to infiltrate NASA to uncover the mole within that organization who is sending the Russians secrets about the US space program a couple of years before the Kennedy deadline to place a man on the moon. After getting wind of the truth – that the US currently did not have the technology to actually land on, and return from, the moon – the more enterprising of the two agents, Matt, pitches the idea to fake the moon landing in order to keep the Russians behind the US in the eyes of the world. As it turns out, the movie they produce IS indeed what NASA used to claim a moon landing, but the successful venture puts the lives of the two agents in danger from shadowy agents.
As in a number of low budget found footage movies, the actors play characters with the same names – it’s kind of a tired cliché now, much like the style of moviemaking itself, but the movie has an astonishing level of reality. I’m assuming that they filmed it digitally then aged the visuals in post, but however they did it, they absolutely achieved the look and feel of a movie shot in the mid 60s. I kept looking for small goofs that showed the contemporary world around the shoot, but saw nothing that jumped out at me. The costumes, the cars, the settings, they all combine to make the period feel real. It reminded me of the great job the producers of The Conjuring 2 did in capturing 70s Britain. To underscore how impressive this is, for a low budget movie the scenes are not confined to interiors, which would have been a lot easier – there are plenty of exterior location shots with numerous extras and vehicles, and all of them look authentic. Very hard to pull off even on bigger budgets that still manage to look somehow phony, like Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. It’s by far and away the most impressive part of the movie. There are other things to like too – the acting is mostly naturalistic and not forced, to the point where it feels like there was a lot of improv on the set during takes, and both main characters work well with each other for the majority of the movie. There’s also a scene (with establishing montage shots filmed in London) which puts the agents on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey as Stanley Kubrick is filming it! For a movie like this, it’s an astonishing piece of hubris, but it totally worked for me. It’s a ballsy move that could have been a narrative disaster, but they pulled it off. There’s also an obvious high degree of research in this script – nothing you couldn’t grab from various websites, of course, but it shows that they did their homework when writing it. Unfortunately, that’s where all the good stuff ends.
In Act 2, both main characters are joined by another agent, Josh Boles (who co wrote the movie with Johnson), but it breaks up the dynamic between Johnson and Williams, resulting in a less focused second half of the movie. Initially appearing as an interloper, he mostly comes across as being a third wheel, but as his role in the movie increases, he swaps that third wheel role with Williams, which felt weird.
And while the visuals really blew me away, I was much less impressed by the story in a number of areas – primarily in the bizarre lack of drama and conflict in the movie. As I mentioned, the movie runs about 80 minutes, yet for almost the first hour there is very little conflict in the script. At each stage in the escalation of their plan to fake the moon landing, they’re met with initial doubt, but seem to effortlessly convince the powers that be to let them continue. In fact, for a conspiracy drama there’s almost zero tension throughout the first hour. Johnson spends a lot of time coming up with great ideas without seeming to work for them, and they all come out great. There is a growing tension between Johnson and Williams, but it’s half baked, as if Johnson and Boles either couldn’t commit to turning the characters totally against each other, or just don’t possess enough talent to pull it off. I go with the latter simply because of the lack of dramatic tension throughout. The result is a movie that feels less like a serious attempt to make the best movie they could make, than it is a self-congratulatory resume builder to snag a development deal for a future movie. Act 3, then, is predictably weak. As the shadowy agents close in, there’s some shooting and chasing, but it’s too casual and doesn’t engage – and there’s one real eye-roller of a scene where Johnson drives his bullet-riddled car to Williams’s home. As he gets out to explore the house, Williams’ wife arrives in her own car, but fails to acknowledge in the narrative said bullet-riddled car, mere feet from where she parked. It’s the only really sloppy piece of filmmaking in the movie, but it’s glaring and distracting.
I really hate to give this movie a low rating, but it’s mostly deserved because of the inability of the moviemakers to deliver anything in the way of suspense in a movie that’s as conspiracy-thriller as you can get. Clearly these guys are ambitious moviemakers, and they could go on to make something special next time up, but they need to understand the value of incremental conflict and tension, both of which are in real short supply here.
© Andrew Hope, 2017