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Operation Avalanche
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by Jay Seaver

"You can fake pretty much everything for a found-footage film."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2016 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I'm moderately surprised that, in the post-"Blair Witch Project" world, there wasn't more one-upmanship in attempting to further blur the line between reality and fiction the way that film did, genuinely making the audience question whether they were actually seeing found footage or not. Instead, it became a style but a recognized one, where the details of how well the filmmakers are faking it are likely to be observed and dissected in real time. One of the few films to create the same sort of nagging worry that maybe the viewer is seeing something real and horrible was "The Dirties", and though the same crew has reunited for another but of faux-found-footage with "Operation Avalanche", they're smart enough to know that you probably can't get what is in large part the same audience to fall for the same tricks from the same people twice.

This time around, filmmaker Matt Johnson co-star Owen Williams cast themselves as two of twenty-five Ivy League "Bright Recruits" hired by the CIA straight out of undergrad in 1965, but who by 1967 are bored investigating Stanley Kubrick for "Deep Red", and scheme to get themselves assigned to Operation Zipper - finding a mole inside NASA. Their brainstorm is that while the real rocket scientists there would spot anybody going undercover as an engineer immediately, they could pose as documentary filmmakers for public television. It gets them in the door but their various wiretaps let them in on a potentially bigger secret: There's no way to meet President Kennedy's challenge to land on the moon by the end of the decade - it will be '71 at the earliest - but Matt has another idea - why not fake the moon landing?

Most films of this sort, even if they don't intend to actually trick the audience into thinking that they're watching something real, at least aim to avoid obvious chances for the first to say "ha! obviously staged!" Johnson and co-writer Josh Boles (who, amusingly, appears in the film as Johnson's handler "Josh Boles") keep that in mind, but they also know that both having already done a movie like this and the subject matter they have chosen are working against them. So they have a bit of fun, demonstrating the technology that they're using in-story when many films would prefer the audience just not think of it, letting Johnson and Williams play their on-screen alter egos as a broadly-drawn goofball and straight man rather than having to blend. There's no winking at the camera - they are not making a spoof even if they are making a comedy - but they recognize that they've got no cover, and that gives them room to let the moments when they encounter familiar conspiracy theories or unlikely bits be fun, rather than just dry.

That said, it's not entirely a comic spoof, though; Johnson and Boles build the story around an elaborate and quite frankly absurd fraud, and have a certain amount of fun doing things in plain sight rather than in some unseen corner like many films of this type, but they're well aware that it doesn't work even as comedy unless there is something genuinely sinister going on. The meat of the film is about on-screen Matt being a goofball in the middle of something that is believers take very seriously, but the filmmakers take good care that the machinations around this are shadowy and mysterious enough that there's the feeling of a genuine cover-up and spy story going on, even as there's also an unmistakable "character" thread of Owen maturing into conventional adulthood while Matt stays the sort of reckless youth that can nevertheless exert a pull on his friends.

In a way beyond both films featuring much of the main cast playing characters with their own names, Johnson and Williams are kind of playing their characters from The Dirties, albeit fifty years earlier and a few years older, and they maintain pretty strong chemistry in doing so: There's genuinely boundless enthusiasm to the on-screen Matt, and Williams always finds a good niche for fictional-Owen as an often reluctant but, in his heart, allied straight man. This time around, they have more people playing specific, less-improvised supporting characters, and they're a decent group, building a framework in which the others can be screwy without derailing the story. It's also not hard to imagine Boles as genuinely frustrated with the oft-manic Johnson as a collaborator outside the film.

Technically, it's impressively constructed for a low-budget movie made in large part with period equipment - enough so that when digital wizardry is done to place the characters in a scene with real-life people from the 1960s, it registers as clever and not an interruption (indeed, even when the viewer recognizes something as faked, they might think it's faked in a different way than it actually is). They stretch the budget with some Escape From Tomorrow-type shenanigans and stuntwork that they really shouldn't be doing themselves, but don't allow the filmmaking tricks to overwhelm the storytelling or become the reason to check it out; though the film is notable for its audacious risks, they're generally in service of something.

The film does still work, in large part, because it's a bit self-aware and the filmmakers know how it will be scrutinized; it's often modern in its attitude despite the period details, made for am audience that has seen a fair number of mock-documentaries and knows what to look out for. But that's okay - as much as they want to immerse the audience, they probably don't want to actually advance the theory that the moon landing was faked. The combination of careful construction and brashness to pull that off could easily be missed, and generally getting that right covers a number of potential sins.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=30006&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/18/16 13:45:44
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2016 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2016 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/12/17 danR Lead character over-the-top. The movie got better and better especially with the car chase 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  16-Sep-2016 (R)
  DVD: 03-Jan-2017

UK
  N/A

Australia
  16-Sep-2016
  DVD: 03-Jan-2017


Directed by
  Matt Johnson

Written by
  Matt Johnson
  Josh Boles

Cast
  Matt Johnson
  Owen Williams
  Josh Boles
  Ray James



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