Operation Avalanche arrives amidst an avalanche of controversy

OPERATION AVALANCHE (Matt Johnson). 94 minutes. Opens Friday (September 30). See listing. Rating: NNN

After making its Toronto premiere at the Hot Docs festival – a ballsy programming choice, given that it isn’t a documentary – Matt Johnson’s Operation Avalanche finally gets a theatrical run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this week. 

This, too, is a ballsy programming choice, since Johnson’s spent a lot of time over the last year calling TIFF out for failing to support his films – and emerging Canadian directors in general – in a series of interviews, a number of them with NOW’s Radheyan Simonpillai. 

Here are the salient points: Johnson’s first film, The Dirties, didn’t play TIFF, and Johnson chose to take Operation Avalanche to Sundance 2016 rather than offer it to TIFF 2015. Plenty of Canadian filmmakers aren’t happy with TIFF, but few of them will say so on the record, so Johnson instantly became a maverick. He’s also willing to discuss his dissatisfaction with Telefilm Canada’s funding preferences, and that has generated even more coverage.

He definitely has a point. TIFF and Telefilm could both be doing a lot better by emerging filmmakers Johnson’s sparked a conversation the industry very badly needs to have, and I’m really glad he’s done this. But now that Operation Avalanche is playing in town, we have to shift the focus back to the movie, not its maker.

And Operation Avalanche is… well, it’s fine. Conceptually, it’s pretty nifty, taking the form of a found-footage conspiracy thriller about a pair of junior CIA agents (Johnson and his Dirties co-star Owen Williams, once again using their own names for their characters) who attempt to out a Russian mole at NASA and wind up faking the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Johnson and his crew shot clandestinely on real locations (including NASA’s Texas complex, and Mission Control itself) to achieve a compelling documentary effect, and the story’s conceit is clever enough that it’s easy to forgive the fact that he’s repeating exactly the same story beats as The Dirties in a new context, and even playing the same excitable, morally ambivalent character.

It’s a fun movie, and Johnson’s comic timing is as sharp as his technical facility. But I really hope he does something different with his next picture. I also hope I’m not the only one who says this, because in Canada it’s awfully easy to spend a career coasting.

Hell, just look at Xavier Dolan. Here’s another emerging Canadian filmmaker who’s managed to get the national media behind him despite a fairly limited vision and a real weakness for histrionics, both in his films and in his interviews. 

But his success at Cannes plays directly into our cultural inferiority complex. If he’s been recognized outside Canada, we must shower him with glory! His latest film, the insufferably mannered It’s Only The End Of The World, was just announced as Canada’s national submission for the best foreign-language Oscar. It will not even make the final five.

Say what you will about Matt Johnson, but at least he’s outspoken about something other than his own genius. And I’m looking forward to his next picture, while dreading Dolan’s.

normw@nowtoronto.com | @normwilner

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