The space race with Russia is heating up. NASA's under intense pressure to put a man on the moon. That's when low-level CIA operative Matt Johnson makes a horrifying discovery.
He hears a NASA official admitting they've had a setback and they won't be able to land on the moon for at least five years. "Do you understand what this means?" one of the agents asks his friend. "NASA can't do it. They can't land man and come back."
Losing the space race would humiliate the U.S. So Johnson, who not only works for the CIA but is also a budding filmmaker, comes up with an audacious plan: "We can make a film that shows us going to the moon without actually doing it!"
So goes "Operation Avalanche," the new movie opening this weekend in Minnesota that purports to show how a faked moon landing might, or might not, have been done.
The movie rekindles the long-held conspiracy theory of a faked moon landing, a belief that might have been hard to laugh off in the late 1960s following the release of the movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey." After all, director Stanley Kubrick was faking space travel, so why not fake a moon landing? What could possibly go wrong?
As it turns out, a great deal. As Johnson's idea gains traction within the agency, and he begins to make the film, strange events begin to overtake him as unknown forces, possibly the Russians, try to intervene.
"I think what it was for me and the team that I made this film with is there is so much mythology around it. And the mythology is kind of safe...," said Matt Johnson, the Canadian filmmaker and actor who makes mockumentaries where he names characters after himself, including fake documentaries about real things, like the moon landing.
"And who really cares?" he asked during a recent interview where the phone line — mysteriously — went dead for a few moments. "It almost doesn't matter if it was faked or not. It gives it a certain accessibility."
Didn't he worry that by making a fake documentary about a faked moon landing, then he might convince some people that the moon landing didn't happen?
"When we set out to make this movie, a big challenge for us was to how do we convince audiences of something we ourselves do not believe," Johnson said.
Under Johnson's direction, he and his crew went to extreme lengths to make their fake film.
They learned 1960's film techniques, including how to develop the footage they'd shot. They used 1960s equipment. They also, just like the characters in their film, passed themselves off as film students to gain access both to NASA and Shepperton Studios in England, where Stanley Kubrick shot "2001."
He said they eventually let people know what they were doing, and got good footage in the meantime.
The film has been attracting attention on the festival circuit and is now hitting theaters on a small scale, and will spread more widely if it takes off. Johnson says he's learned a lot making "Operation Avalanche, about what's possible, and what's not.
"We really were trying to fake the moon landing," he said. "What I learned more than anything is that that is impossible. Nobody could do that."
He wants us to believe him.
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