One of Werner Herzog’s many pieces of advice for filmmakers, documentary or otherwise, is to “carry bolt cutters everywhere.” With that in mind, Matt Johnson’s Operation Avalanche blurs a slew of ethical lines in the giddy cause of cinema-or-bust enthusiasm. He, quite convincingly, gets away with it too.
Set in 1967, as the US and Soviet space race phase of the cold war kicked into high gear, the faux 16mm doc follows two low level CIA agents, in the nascent A/V department of the spy organization, who are investigating whether or not Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove was a piece of Soviet propaganda. After ‘proving’ that Kubrick is indeed not a spy, they get pulled into (or rather browbeat their way onto) a mission looking for a mole in NASA. The plan is to pose as film students making a documentary about the Apollo missions, get inside and bug some key players’ phones.
In fact, the filmmakers play the two lead film students in Operation Avalanche. Johnson along with his The Dirties co-creator, Owen Williams, and their tiny crew, did exactly the same thing to make this film. This creates a rabbit hole of life-imitating-art-imitating-ciniphilia perpetual motion machine that powers the film. How Johnson and company managed to catch the right people wearing clothes close enough to pass as period dress, and edit them into the film without any permissions, well, that remains for Lionsgate, who acquired the film, to perhaps legally smooth out as the film makes its way through the festival circuit to commercial release. Suffice it to say, the logistics of a micro-budget film to get impressive period production value in ‘hot’ locations which include inside NASA’s Huston Mission Control, London’s Shepperton Studios and a couple Toronto back lots.
Through a convoluted series of events that put these two spy/cinephiles (and some their CIA handlers) way in over their head, they are eventually tasked with faking a moon landing for NASA in a way that recalls Peter Hyam’s Capricorn One as much as it does Orson Welles F For Fake (although Johnson prefers a Steenbeck to a Moviola). A signature scene in the film involves them sneaking onto the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey and ‘stealing’ Kubrick’s execution of front projection. The scene is constructed through a marvellous series of special effects involving body doubles, a shit-ton of high resolution archival photos, and shoe-string ingenuity. Things have come a long way in 20 years that a such tiny film such as Operation Avalanche can outdo the whiz-bang archival integrations of something like Forrest Gump. Along with persuasively low-key special effects, it also doubles a love letter to a particular era of delightfully analog industriousness (see also: Berberian Sound Studio.)