Review: Matt Johnson’s ‘Operation Avalanche’ is found footage done right

Frequently, when I am writing a review, I will have to look someone up to jar my memory. I see so many films that it is possible for me to like something, even review it well, and then never think of it again. Such was the case with The Dirties. I actually went back today and read my review, and as soon as I did, I remembered all the things I liked about the movie and its director/star/co-writer Matt Johnson. The same things are true about Johnson's new film, Operation Avalanche, but even moreso, and I think Lionsgate stands a chance at turning it into a low-key hit if they handle it right.

The Dirties was one of the rare found footage films where I thought the device was essential to the story and that the film commented on the notion of who is shooting and presenting the footage in such a way that it was more than just a piggyback on a trend. With Operation Avalanche, I think it's fair to call this more of a mockumentary, although you could argue that it's a found footage document prepared by someone who is afraid they are going to be murdered to cover up a conspiracy. Which conspiracy? Why, how about the moon landing?

Yes, indeed, Matt Johnson is going to get punched in the face by Buzz Aldrin someday, and it will be spectacular.

It's kind of amazing that only three years ago, Johnson was able to easily pass as a high schooler for The Dirties. In this, which kicks off in 1967, Johnson plays a CIA agent recruited directly out of Harvard for a very specific project. He and his team are sent to NASA as a documentary film crew to help sniff out a Soviet mole who is allegedly passing secrets to Russia to help them win the race to the moon. Once they've successfully infiltrated the space agency, though, they begin to realize that there are some major problems that are being kept secret from the American public, and that there is a very good chance America simply will not make it to the moon.

Johnson's character is the first one to broach the subject of just plain lying about the moon landing, and watching him hatch the proposal for how they could fake such a monumental event is a big part of what makes Operation Avalanche so compelling. I have a very close friend who went down the moon conspiracy rabbit hole at one point, and he did so with such fervor and he's such a rational person in all other regards that he had me freaked out for a moment. The thing about us landing on the moon is that I consider it the single greatest accomplishment of the human animal so far. We looked up into the night sky. We saw this big bright thing. We said, “We are going to go there,” and then we did. It is one of the things that gives me hope for us and for the future. If we could do that, then I think we can do anything. It is simply a matter of us collectively deciding to do that thing. One of the reasons I think moon landing conspiracies have such a hold on people is precisely because of how crazy it seems that we built a machine that took us off of our planet and that human beings walked on another world. It is a staggering thought, and on some level, it's easier to believe that we just made the whole damn thing up.

There are some very clever details to the way Johnson lays things out in the film, and film nerds will especially love a quick detour to Stanley Kubrick land, complete with a few shots that genuinely baffled me because I'm not sure what I was looking at. Eventually, what's laid out is something that isn't really any of the most popular “true stories” that are out there, but a sort of synthesis of all of them, played out on a very personal scale. Across the board, the technical credits on this are top-notch, and they have to be to make it all feel like it is authentically of the era. The photography by Andrew Appelle and Jared Raab feels exactly right, and Chris Crane's production design and Zosia Mackenzie's art direction work to sell the reality of the period detail without getting heavy-handed about it.

It's impressive to see how Johnson manages tone in the film, as things go from sort of giddy and fun at the start to increasingly paranoid and then eventually taking a turn into a sort of brutal sadness. I was surprised by how effective it was as a whole, and I think at this point, Matt Johnson has conquered the found footage/mockumentary thing. I'm curious to see what else he can do as a filmmaker, but it's clear that he is a genuine talent, capable of canny metatextual films that dig deeper than most of the genre dares.

Operation Avalanche is set for release by Lionsgate later this year, and it will play again at this year's Sundance Film Festival.