There is something irresistible about a well-constructed conspiracy theory. The juxtaposition between the secret hands behind the scenes pulling the strings that control our destiny, and the peculiar sense of security that the world is not just a series of random events, that there is an order to it even if he have no collective say in how it is organized. PROJECT AVALANCHE homes in on both propositions with a mad dash of pop culture and a (backhanded) salute to American idealism. Taking the theory that the moon landing in 1969 was faked, the film expertly creates the Cold War paranoia and hubris that led to the Space Race, and plops an ambitious Ivy Leaguer into a situation in which he is so far out of his depth that he hasn’t noticed that he’s underwater, and that the water is very, very hot.
That would be Matt Johnson, a CIA recruit with dreams of getting assignments more challenging than determining whether or not Stanley Kubrick is a spy. With his reluctant partner, Owen Williams, a man uninterested in coloring outside the lines, much less thinking outside the box, Johnson discovers that the United States is about to lose the race to the moon. Seeing an opportunity, he pitches the idea of faking the landing to his boss, setting off a series of increasingly ludicrous yet impressively executed plans that include adding lead weights to a feather, crashing the set of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and finding just the rights kind of sand to sprinkle around an ersatz lunar lander.
Johnson, who also directed and co-wrote the script with co-star Josh Boles, uses a cinema-verité style of hidden cameras and fly-on-the-wall documentation. It’s a conceit that quickly loses its preciousness as the story becomes more and more engaging beyond the genuine humor of Johnson’s goofball antics producing a barely sublimated slow burn in Williams. For all the ephemeral humor of people who have no clue about what they’re doing, there is also a compelling subtext of darkness and paranoia, and as the film progresses, the one takes the place of the other as supertext with a subtle slyness as the ruthlessness of the government is revealed, and Johnson’s blustery enthusiasm drains away into something more in keeping with the era’s zeitgeist.
Along the way there are many pleasures, from learning the intricacies of front-screen projection to the proper camera speed for mimicking the effects on human movement in the lower gravity of the moon. There’s also the seamless way that Johnson and company integrate themselves into period footage and photographs. Hint, that’s not a stand-in Kubrick giving Johnson an autograph. It’s a tart contrast the literal cut-and-paste that removes the studio lights of an astronaut’s helmet.
Thoughtful, thought-provoking, and fiendishly clever, OPERATION AVALANCHE starts as a satire and ends as thriller, making the journey from the one to the other not just a logical progression, but an almost inevitable one. By the end, cynicism and suspicion are the only survival tools worth having, and ethics a proposition too dangerous to contemplate.