It’s 1968 and the United States has taken up the challenge of John F. Kennedy and been sending men to the moon with the Apollo project. But will the Russians get there first? We can’t have that! Meanwhile, two earnest, but rather bumbling CIA agents, Matt Johnson (playing himself) and Owen Williams (playing himself) are just wrapping up their investigation of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who’s just released Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Is he a commie?
Then news breaks that the Russians have information about what’s going on at NASA that they shouldn’t have and that there must be a mole in Houston at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. Matt and Owen lobby to be sent down in the guise of documentary filmmakers so they can investigate and ferret out that commie mole before it’s too late and the Russians beat us to the moon. With much reluctance, the head of the CIA approves the mission and with two colleagues, they get in their Plymouth and drive down from Washington DC.
They then surreptitiously install monitoring devices on the phones of key NASA personnel and learn something shocking: The Apollo 11 mission to land an American on the moon isn’t going to succeed. There’s huge pressure for Americans to be the first on the moon, and astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins don’t even know their mission might be a bust. What to do?
Owen comes up with a brilliant plan: to fake the footage of the actual moon landing and save face. After all, if it’s broadcast from the Apollo capsule while orbiting the moon, no-one will know and “Cronkite will do half the work of convincing people anyway!”
Operation Avalanche borrows liberally from the Academy-Award winning film Argo and the 1977 faked Martian landing film Capricorn One to produce a surprisingly engaging and entertaining period film that also liberally taps the “found footage” cinematographic style. The entire film is saturated and aged so that it looks like a movie that was shot in the late 1960’s, and is remarkably well done, oozing a verisimilitude that’s quite convincing.
The overarching paranoia against the government, the commies and even the rest of the CIA felt like it veered a bit towards the whimsical satire of 1967’s The President’s Analyst (without the epic final confrontation with The Phone Company, however), but it helped propel Operation Avalanche along to its somewhat confusing end. Indeed, one of my few criticisms of this highly entertaining film is that it’s so well written, so thoughtful in its tie-in of contemporary 60’s tropes that it’s a disappointment when the final reel doesn’t really know how to resolve everything. Yes, there’s a satisfying level of ambiguity when the footage of Neil Armstrong finally steps foot on the moon and utters those immortal words “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, but perhaps it’s too ambiguous, leaving at least this viewer scratching his head as the final stock video footage plays under the closing credits.
If I wrote a film script myself, it could easily have ended up being something like Operation Avalanche, there are so many elements that I find personally interesting and engaging. And the writing is often splendid, as during the scene when Matt and Owen brainstorm to come up with the best phrase for Armstrong to say as he “steps foot” on the moon. I highly recommend this entertaining, witty and thrilling conspiracy film, I just wish the ending had been tweaked a bit to feel less like the production team ran out of steam and more like a comeuppance (or vindication) of the protagonists’s suspicions.
Having said all of that, the biggest problem this film has is its name. Rarely do I encounter a film that has such a horrible name, but it’s a sure bet that this won’t do well in the theater or even on streaming services because of its name having nothing to do with the era or topic. “Operation Moon Landing”, or “Apollo 11 1/2” or “First Step on the Moon” or really just about any other name that would convey its theme would really help moviegoers opt to see this movie. And that’s too bad, because it deserves a good audience, particularly baby boomers, who will greatly enjoy the retro 60’s music, cars, fashion and, yes, paranoia.