'Operation Avalanche': Sundance Review

A likeable if not always convincing fantasy that gets much mileage from its period feel.

Ambitious CIA agents try to help NASA out by faking the Apollo 11 mission.

Did Stanley Kubrick fake the moon landing? No, that's ridiculous. It was all done by a couple of film-buff rookies at the CIA. At least, that's the angle of Operation Avalanche, Matt Johnson's enthusiastically retro pastiche that starts in happy caper mode before veering toward its natural conspiracy-nut roots. Sure to play well with fans of Johnson's 2013 debut The Dirties, this scrappy pic's commercial appeal may be limited — but it's significantly more fun than Moonwalkers, the similarly themed comedy that crash-landed in limited theatrical release last week.

Johnson plays Matt Johnson (central characters are named after the actors playing them), who with partner Owen Williams has been working in "the CIA's A/V program." Trying to root out a Soviet spy in NASA's Apollo program, the recent college grads talk their way into an undercover assignment as education-TV producers making a documentary about the space race. But after setting up inside NASA for their fake TV program, the men soon learn something nearly as troubling as Russian spying: Though they've committed to JFK's pledge to send a man to the moon and back before 1970, the space agency's leaders now realize they have "built a lander that can't land."

The logic leading from this discovery to the CIA's decision to stage a fake landing is, frankly, a stretch, especially once they start explaining how they'll get essential NASA figures to go along with the hoax. The picture's dialogue was mostly improvised, and one wonders if this scheme might have been dreamed up while cameras rolled, as well. But Johnson, the small cast's linchpin, moves with such boyish gusto one wants to let him see his lunar lie through to the end.

Searching for ways to make his footage believable, Johnson winds up visiting the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey (as in a scene set at the Johnson Space Center's Mission Control, an FX team places the actor into footage of the real Kubrick in action); there he learns the magic of front-projection. But as he's putting these lessons to use back home, building a set and inventing the little "one small step" details that have since become iconic, Owen starts to worry that the CIA has another team of operatives watching them.

The film pulls off the action climax of this spy-vs-spy narrative quite well given its obviously limited means. But Avalanche will attract more attention for its sneaky ethic — knowing the real-world NASA wouldn't cooperate with a feature about a faked Apollo 11, Johnson gained access by pretending to be a film student making a documentary — and for its efforts at recreating a period-appropriate look. While nitpickers will find unconvincing production details here and there, on the whole Johnson and his cinematographers (using a RED digital sensor with antique 16mm lenses, then printing to celluloid) do a fine job of recreating not just the look of old film but the manner of Robert Drew-style direct cinema.

Just don't ask them to give you justifications for the more implausible footage ostensibly captured by the film-within-the-film's "documentarians." Put on the spot, Johnson would probably just invent an elaborate, if entertaining, set of lies.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)
Distributor: Lionsgate Premiere
Production company: XYZ Films
Cast: Matt Johnson, Owen Williams, Josh Boles, Ray James
Director: Matt Johnson
Screenwriters: Matt Johnson, Josh Boles
Producers: Matthew Miller, Lee Kim, Matt Johnson
Executive producers: Nate Bolotin, Nick Spicer, Aram Tertzakian
Directors of photography: Andrew Appelle, Jared Raab
Production designer: Chris Crane
Costume designer: Megan Oppenheimer
Editor: Curt Lobb
Composer: Jay McCarrol

Not rated, 93 minutes