"Let me get this straight. You've lost Apollo 11. Southern receiving station has no idea where Apollo 11 is."
"Yeah, it's on its way to the moon."—Cliff (Tom Long) responds to a frustrated Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton)
We've all seen the television pictures of Apollo 11, those indelible images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin dropping onto the surface of the moon. But how those pictures came into our homes was as interesting a story as the landing itself. The Dish relates this bold and somewhat true tale of courage, teamwork, human achievement, and sheep.
Facts of the Case
July, 1969. All over the world, people forget their cares and worries for a few days and turn on their television sets. Something momentous is happening. Americans are about to land on the moon. In Australia, the Prime Minister (Bille Brown) is both surprised and a bit annoyed to discover that NASA requires the use of the largest radio telescope in the hemisphere, located in the little village of Parkes, to broadcast the moon landing worldwide. But the team running the telescope is not NASA-issue perfect. And the NASA advisor (Patrick Warburton) sent to supervise is a bit too by-the-book. And Parkes? Well, the antenna itself is located in the middle of a sheep paddock.
But this motley crew can get the job done. Even through power failures, miscalculations, and gale force winds. In the end, only the Parkes team can help make that one giant leap for mankind.
Grooming itself in the mold of one of those "quirky" British working-class comedies of the last decade that play off the clash between rural and urban cultures, The Dish mines a good deal of comedy out of the local goofballs of Parkes, Australia: the military wannabe who salutes everybody in town, the overeager guard (Tayler Kane) who cannot keep his own security procedures straight, the lovestruck scientist (Tom Long) who fumbles trying to ask out the prettiest girl in town, the mayor (Roy Billing) who wants to parlay his newfound celebrity into a ticket to Parliament.
But the film wisely avoids playing its material as caricature. The characters are all likeable and competent. Conflicts are quickly ironed out, and the general mood is fairly amiable. At the center of the mild swirl of chaos is Dr. Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill), the quintessential movie scientist, with his long-stem pipe and collection of cardigan sweaters. Sam Neill anchors the film with a low-key performance, like a wise father who is certain everything will work out in the end. However, his sense of paternal certainty might come off as patronizing, if not balanced by the bureaucratic certainty of his major foil, Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton). Sporting thick Clark Kent glasses and an overly starched collar, Burnett appears at first to be trouble, an imperious American sent to put these provincial Aussies in their place. But he quickly warms up to the team, and his sense of polish provides welcome relief for Buxton's relaxed manner.
Overall, it is the sense of balance throughout The Dish that makes the film successful. Yes, the ending is always in sight—we know that everything will turn out alright. So, rather than working to generate large-scale suspense, which would be thwarted by our own memories of history, the film works on small, unexpected moments. The dish team gripes that their professionalism is not taken seriously; then they are seen playing cricket inside the dish. The American ambassador arrives in Parkes for a party, everyone gathers around the stage to hear the band play the American national anthem, and the band kicks out a snappy version of Hawaii 5-0. The soundtrack itself is perky as well, peppered with happy '60s tunes like "Good Morning Starshine" and "You Make Me So Very Happy."
This might be what studio-shill critics call a "feel good movie." There are no bad guys, any crisis gets solved in a few minutes, and the happy ending is always known in advance. But that is not a bad thing in the case of The Dish. The movie is genuinely funny, and the characters are quite appealing, in part due to strong performances led by Neill and Warburton.
The film is lovely to watch as well, presented in rich tones to complement the pleasant landscape of New South Wales. The anomaly of a radio antenna dish in the middle of an idyllic field is not lost on director Rob Sitch. We are at once impressed with the dish as a sign of our technological cleverness and also with its fragile nature, susceptible to power failures and high winds. Much of the real work of the Apollo 11 telecast was handled at nearby Honeysuckle Creek, but Sitch sensed a better story in the town of Parkes. And in spite of the slight nuisance of real history, he was probably right.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Nearly flawless anamorphic print? Polished 5.1 soundtrack? Yes, Warner has done a fine job with the film itself. But there is nothing extra of any consequence. Filmographies for a few of the cast and writer/director Sitch, and a theatrical trailer (narrated to sound a bit like a PBS documentary). And that is it. No essay insert (impossible on a cheap snapper case anyway), no behind-the-scenes stuff, no information on the real Parkes station. Nothing.
Even without extra content, The Dish makes for a pleasant evening's entertainment. It is difficult to dislike a film that seems so accessible and amusing. There are no deep messages here, or offensive humor to alienate parents. The Dish is a solid comedy that shows off once again why Sam Neill is one of our most underrated actors.
Warner is fined for lack of attention due to a charming film. All those directly involved in The Dish, both cast and crew, are commended and instructed to make more entertaining little films like this one. In an age where most Hollywood comedies only aim to shock and the real news is consistently depressing, some pleasant escapism for a couple of hours is very welcome.
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