Operation Avalanche (2016)

Directed by Matt Johnson


In my last post (Kramer Vs. Kramer) I mentioned my affinity for screenplay structure, and Operation Avalanche is almost the perfect example of everything I’ve read about screenwriting.

The who/what/where/when is introduced very quickly: young NASA filmmakers in the 60s.  Matt and Owen film everything (or their friends do, this is a found footage film), and Matt really wants to be put on an operation to find a mole within NASA.  It’s while working on this task that he intercepts a call and learns that due to certain problems, Apollo 11 will be unable to land on the moon.  He comes up with the plan to fake the moon landing, and act 2 begins when he gets the go ahead for Operation Avalanche.

The first part of Act 2A is where you get the “fun and games” moments.  These are the clips you most often find in a movie trailer.  In this case, the young filmmakers look for the right location to fake the moon landing and eventually track down Stanley Kubrick and learn a few tricks from his 2001: A Space Odyssey set (screen projection) to improve their own film.  Around the midpoint of the story, things begin to get more serious.  The stakes are raised when Matt learns that if his film doesn’t work, the back up plan is to shoot down Apollo 11.  In other words, there are life and death consequences.

It’s around this time that the mole returns as well.  The young men realize they’re being watched, and their paranoia dramatically increases.  The second act ends when they complete the film.

In the third act, Matt acts on a hunch, knowing the man NASA claimed was the mole is probably not the real mole.  This is when he investigates the people he works for and things turn very dark.  Owen, Matt’s best friend filmmaker with whom he occasionally butt heads, appears to have hung himself in his garage (though this could be a set up).  Matt tries to bury the footage to keep it as collateral in case anyone comes after him, which they do.  A short car chase occurs in a meadow, and it’s very tense and well-constructed with the camera hardly cutting since it’s meant to be from the perspective of someone filming it within the car.

Matt ultimately confronts his boss’ boss, knowing he’s trying to have him killed.  He tells him over the phone that he has documentation of all the lies he has helped tell.  He uses this to negotiate for his own life, and the film ends with him watching the moon “landing” alongside a small group of people through a store window.

I really liked this movie.  I enjoyed the humor, the characters and the visual consistency (probably not an easy task) given the found-footage angle coupled with the 60s film quality.  The found-footage, component, though is usually not something I enjoy.  It often makes a movie feel gimmicky, and I feel like this story was so much more developed compared to other found-footage movies.

There is a good amount of suspension of belief required to watch this, but it’s a funny movie, and I think one of the biggest jokes is that these basically kids are the ones responsible for faking the moon landing, not grizzled old NASA veterans.

The movie gives you just about everything you’d want if you were inclined to see it based off the trailer.  It delivers on every promise, and I can see how some people might not want to spend so much time with these characters, but the characters are not the biggest appeal of the movie.  The biggest draw is how well and intricately the story could imagine the fake moon landing, and I thought it did an impressive job.

I could picture the filmmakers sitting around a campfire debating how the moon landing could have been faked and so many people deceived.  It’s a very interesting topic, and it feels to me like they covered all their bases.  They go into some depth on who would have to know about the fake landing and how they could disseminate the footage.

Then the inherent drama is amplified as you might expect considering each of the people involved is a huge liability with what they know.

I don’t have much else to add, but this was a fun movie to watch, and much of it left me wondering how they did what they did.  They worked in a way to show archival footage of Stanley Kubrick like Forrest Gump did with so many characters, and when Matt walks on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was as excited as any other moment in the film.

The one issue I suppose I have is the man who becomes the filmmakers’ supervisor and Owen.  So I guess I have two issues, then.

First, the supervisor isn’t very developed and mostly stands around criticizing the main characters in a poorly-attempted deadpan tone.  He is just there to be unimpressed and then ultimately impressed.  Second, Owen’s resistance to Matt’s plan always feels a little forced.  Director Matt Johnson knows there needs to be some interpersonal conflict to help drive the story, and Owen simply begins to go against Matt, claiming to be nervous about what they’re doing.  This felt a little vague because Owen seemed to have gone along with several of Matt’s previous plans, and his reluctance to help with Operation Avalanche isn’t absolute, just convenient for the narrative.  He doesn’t quit cold turkey, but he does remain stubborn against Matt’s wild ideas when the story needs a roadblock.

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