Matt Johnson’s 2013 debut “The Dirties” boldly applied the overused found-footage approach to tell the story of a high school shooter. By those standards, his followup “Operation Avalanche” has more traditional aims, but it nevertheless confirms Johnson’s ability to craft surprisingly engaging material out of an overused device.
Relying on a mashup of archival footage and staged bits, “Operation Avalanche” is a lively action-comedy period piece about a pair of bumbling would-be filmmakers hired by the CIA to fake the moon landing in the late sixties. Despite the inherent silliness of that premise, Johnson captures a unique climate of Cold War era paranoia while keeping the material fast and fun.
As with “The Dirties,” the new movie finds Johnson casting himself in the lead role and using his real name. Along with his pal Owen Williams (also Johnson’s “Dirties” co-star), Williams toils in obscurity on an aimless CIA mission to prove that Stanley Kubrick isn’t a spy. In the opening minutes, in grainy black-and-white footage, Johnson makes the case to his stone-faced bosses that he should instead run a separate operation to uncover an alleged Russian mole working for NASA. The prologue sets the stage for Johnson’s fast-thinking ability to convince others of his outrageous schemes, and as the imagery shifts to a wider aspect ratio and color, the movie reflects his excitement.
With Johnson and Williams roaming the halls of NASA, interrogating various staffers about their plans to visit the moon, “Operation Avalanche” builds to a conspiratorial twist that leads Johnson to an even bigger gamble: Realizing the urgency of beating the Soviets to the moon, he suggests the duo use their filmmaking abilities to fake it. The absurdity of this scenario leads to a series of hilariously awkward moments, as Johnson directs his pal in a space suit hopping through the desert.
The director’s sense of comedic timing is so precise that it winds up being an expert form of misdirection, as a governmental agenda coalesces around his project that subtly tips the movie into darker territory. Essentially a satire about murky agendas at the heigh of Cold War paranoia, “Operation Avalanche” unfolds a bit like a Christopher Guest mockumentary version of “Dr. Strangelove,” with cheeky humor directed at genuine corruption. With his endless pileup of risky schemes, Johnson turns his character into a weapon of satire.
Gathering old propaganda films and newsreels, the filmmaker endows the period setting with an impressive degree of authenticity. Fleshing out an era defined by President Kennedy’s declaration that Americans would make it to the moon by the end of the decade, “Operation Avalanche” hovers in the nervous desire to reach that goal as time runs out. His characters maintains a sixties-era idealism that sets the stage for a harsh reality check in the final act. (In other words: Welcome to the seventies.) The cynical finale of the last shot is masterstroke of ambiguity.
Even more remarkable, the shaky camerawork always maintains spatial orientation, so that viewers can follow each beat of the plot despite the shifting perspectives. During a clandestine visit to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” set, the hidden camera never spends too long staring at the ceiling or the floor. (Other found footage efforts wield slipshod camerawork as an excuse.) Later, a superbly tense car chase sequence maintains its momentum as the cameraman whips back and forth.
Compelling in a larger sense even when lingers it on its goofier ingredients (the scenes where the pair stage the moon landing drag a bit), “Operation Avalanche” generally manages to make its outrageous premise stick. It’s easy to imagine a lesser treatment of the material in more conventional terms, particularly as the entire genre of comedic thrillers has gone largely neglected in recent years. With “Operation Avalanche,” Johnson resurrects it with a much-needed bite.
“Operation Avalanche” premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival. Lionsgate will release it later this year.