Matt Johnson is Canada's DIY punk Steven Spielberg. His ever-busy frames contain magic tricks within magic tricks, daring you to spot the seams with a sneer. Specializing in a very particular kind of fake found-footage mode of filmmaking with a self-reflexive bent, his first film, 2013's The Dirties, and his latest project, Operation Avalanche, feel like the culmination of an important phase of his career, but also the suggestion of something bigger, a calling card for his personal brand of form-pushing storytelling.
Over his first two films, Johnson has established a set of themes he's interested in exploring, using the moving image to refract and annihilate established hierarchies of truth, folding countless references in on themselves (Brian De Palma, Sydney Lumet and, especially, Orson Welles' F For Fake) to expose our relationship to the movies that make us who we are.
In a way, it feels kind of appropriate that Operation Avalanche has its Canadian premiere at Hot Docs, a festival that in recent years has been programming more films that blur the lines between reality and the cinematic. With The Dirties, Johnson and his co-star, Owen Williams, passed for high schoolers, working moments of real footage into a film about a school shooting.
Here, Johnson and his crew went to NASA for real, interviewing photograph historians under the pretence of making a documentary about the moon landing. Those interviews make up only a few minutes of Operation Avalanche though, a reason to get them in the door and shoot a '60s-influenced conspiracy thriller that feels feather-light while pulling off some technically remarkable feats with archival footage and documents, going beyond just stitching the characters in, Forrest Gump-style.
Just like in The Dirties, Johnson and Williams play skewed versions of themselves, a pair of CIA AV-team members working on a documentary about Stanley Kubrick following the release of Dr. Strangelove. When word gets out there's a Russian mole infiltrating NASA to steal space race plans, Johnson comes up with the idea of posing as documentary filmmakers, to capture the mole on camera.
Plans get even more complicated when Johnson and Williams intercept a phone call that says the moon landing isn't going to happen; from there, tensions escalate and conspiracies are formed, as their friendship is tested amid a growing global conflict. Johnson was fine in The Dirties but is much better here, playing a more believable egomaniac swept up in complex knots of truth and lies, losing his sense of identity in the films he makes.
Operation Avalanche is formally very complex, containing films within films and moments that reflexively double back on themselves to reveal the creation of semiotics, exposing how we're instructed where to look and how to listen. But by keeping the thematic through-line focused on the decaying friendship of Johnson and Williams, it never feels bogged down or sluggish. Operation Avalanche begins as a comedy but pulls off quite a few tonal changes along the way, ending on a very sad but appropriate and effective note.
It's a wormhole of a film that sucks its influences in before imploding into something unique. This is one of the year's best films, and a must-see of the festival.