How To Fake A Moon Landing: Critic Mike Long Loves The Thriller ‘Operation Avalanche’
On paper, this is among the hackiest ideas you could come up with: do a “they faked the moon landing!” caper as a found-footage picture. But in the hands of 20-something writer/director Matthew Johnson, Project Avalanche makes for a hooky, atmospheric thriller.
In the mid-1960s, a pair of Ivy League mega-nerds get drafted into the CIA to do one-off projects, eventually ending up undercover at NASA in search of a mole who may give away moonshot secrets. Through the bold ignorance only young, ambitious people are capable of, the nerds’ mission is converted into something else: make a fake movie of the moon landing, since a strange setback now means the astronauts will never get there.
The resourceful Johnson, who also plays the lead, slips his events into NASA history without a scratch. Even though it’s fiction, there’s nothing in here that couldn’t have happened and led us to the same culture and public history we have today, and that’s the fun of it. Johnson lets us see the technical challenges of faking such a fake film, setting up Kubrick’s 2001, then in production, as the unwitting source for the answers. He hides the project by allowing it to be one more TV effort to explain the moon landing to audiences; his shopping around for “lunar sand” and “moon rocks” is suddenly unnoticeable, and untraceable.
That untraceability quickly returns to haunt him. The problem with a conspiracy theory (“I think we’re in one,” his partner in crime says at one point) is that the masters of such theories do not like loose ends. Johnson and his partner are the loosest ends of all, and the pursuit of them carries us right to the end – but, once again, in a way you don’t expect. Project Avalanche tiptoes right up to the cliff of commerciality then, as Dennis Miller might say, jetés back to its director’s arthouse heart. You’ll get a few big answers but not all of them, and certainly not all the important ones. In any case, I liked the “what now?” feeling this gave me as the credits rolled. Movies could use more of that, though I know that’s no formula for selling tickets. Case in point, this picture for one Matthew Johnson, who probably knew going in that this would be his calling-card picture and not his blockbuster. I think it’s coming soon, though.
After a blink-and-you-missed-it release in September, Project Avalanche is now available for streaming. It’s worth your money and your time because it’s a very good time, one of the more original releases of 2016.
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Written By: Michael Long is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright. He is also a professional speechwriter, and he teaches at Georgetown University. Read more at MikeLongOnline.com.
Photographs are Courtesy: Lionsgate
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