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The Problem With the Old Conspiracy Theory in a New Movie

6 minute read

If you’re like most people, you’re having trouble keeping track of the nation’s growing stockpile of conspiracy theories. It’s becoming harder and harder to separate the birthers from the truthers from the grassy knollers and all the rest.

But there’s one conspiracy theory that, regrettably, is about to get a lot of solo attention thanks to the release of the film Operation Avalanche, a brisk yarn about a team of CIA agents who fake the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. That conspiracy theory is an old oneno sooner had we landed than the loonies emerged—but it’s still a major problem.

Created by a group of Canadian filmmakers led by director Matt Johnson, Operation Avalanche is one of those meta-tales that is also about filmmakers. In this case, though, that’s only a ruse; what they really are is CIA agents brought into NASA in 1967 to look for a Soviet mole who has infiltrated the space program. They adopt the documentary filmmaker personae so that they can move freely through NASA without raising the unknown spy’s suspicions. When they stumble on the secret knowledge that there’s no real hope of getting to the moon by the deadline set by President Kennedy, the conspiracy machine rumbles into motion, as the filmmaker-spies try to convince the CIA to let them fake the landings on a sound stage in Texas and pass it off as the real deal.

“It wouldn’t be hard at all,” says one of the plotters. “All people want to see is an image on a TV screen. The rocket will go up, we’ll send our footage with them, and the astronauts will just beam it back to Earth.”

Johnson and his team are cunning about tickling the moon kooks’ most sensitive erogenous zones. Stanley Kubrick figures as a character in the movie—and Kubrick, whose film 2001: A Space Odyssey was released a year before the Apollo 11 landing, has long been a key figure in the conspiratorial canon. Likewise, it’s an old part of the larger rumors that the Mission Controllers themselves did not know about the fraud since the data they were seeing from the spacecraft was actually copied from earlier simulations; and that problems with the lunar module were what prevented a moon landing from happening for real.

It bears repeating—though it shouldn’t be necessary—that those arguments are risible.

If the lunar module didn’t work, every one of the hundreds of people in the design offices and on the factory floor where it was being built would know and would have to be either brought into the conspiracy or somehow silenced. And as for Mission Controllers being fooled by data from simulations? Please. They wrote and rehearsed those simulations and would have easily been able to distinguish them from the detectably different data stream coming back from the spacecraft.

As an entertainment product, Operation Avalanche undeniably contains some good: the plot grows playfully fractalized before it turns dark and even deadly. The scenes of film-making and editing, with grease pencils and frame cutters, are a reminder of the hand-crafted art form movies used to be. But if there’s anything the history of conspiracy theories really proves, it’s that such ideas rely on the oxygen of conversation to stay alive. Even in the context of a movie like Operation Avalanche, chatter about the faux evidence will only do the same for the moon hoax nonsense—and that does history a disservice.

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The Apollo program came along at a very bad time for America, when the country needed a very good thing. Apollo was a thing made all the greater because, as Kennedy himself stressed in his 1962 speech when he laid down his lunar marker, we chose to go to the moon.

We didn’t have to go; America’s survival didn’t depend on our going. We simply decided to go because that’s what big, brawling, restless, questing, inventive, nations do. Decades on, that one, clean, uncomplicated achievement is still owed respect.

Much worse is the shadow the hoax idea throws on the astronauts who flew the moon missions. Real footage of the Apollo 11 crew—Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin—is used in the movie, as well as of other Apollo astronauts. The movie posits that they were all part of the conspiracy, willing participants in a grand lie that they’ve kept coolly telling for more than 40 years. But that’s not these men.

I traveled through the Middle East in 2010 as part of a morale tour of military bases with Armstrong, Gene Cernan and Jim Lovell—the first man on the moon, the last man on the moon and the commander of Apollo 13. Iraq and Afghanistan were kept off the itinerary because they were considered too dangerous, so no sooner had we all come home than the three astronauts—extremely senior citizens all—turned around and went back to those very hot spots, then they came came home and went back yet again to make sure there were no bases they had missed.

Much more recently—just a few weeks ago, in fact—I was speaking on the phone to Frank Borman, who commanded Apollo 8, the first lunar orbital mission. Borman, 88, lives in Montana now, and I was lucky I caught him when I called. Just the hour before, he had been up in one of his two airplanes, flying a smoke-spotting mission over the ranches in and around Billings. It was fire season and as long as the former astronaut and Air Force pilot had a free morning, he might as well spend it looking out for his neighbors.

The 24 men who went to the moon didn’t have to risk their lives in such an outrageous enterprise. Like the nation itself, they chose that enterprise. They deserve better than what they get at the hands of conspiracy mongers—and moviemakers—who cast doubt on the extraordinary things they achieved.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com