- Tom Long, Patrick Warburton, Sam Neill, and Kevin Harrington (from left) cast their gaze skyward.
Whether or not you're an advocate of insanely expensive and possibly pointless space exploration, there is much to enjoy and appreciate about The Dish. A massive hit Down Under, the film succeeds grandly as charming portraiture, allowing us to mingle among the residents of the country town of Parkes. In July 1969, while the world stared breathless at American feet walking on the moon, a congenial but dedicated lot of Aussies -- largely unrecognized until now -- were conjuring up the televised magic.
The men behind the curtain, in this case, are led by supervisor Cliff Buxton (the ever-dependable Sam Neill), a mildly melancholic scientist who's chuffed to discover that NASA wants to employ his team. Assisted by a snippy technician named Mitch (Kevin Harrington) and a romantically distraught calculations expert named Glenn (Tom Long), Cliff immediately prepares their utterly enormous radio telescope (110 feet in diameter!) as a Southern Hemisphere backup to the prime receiver in Goldstone, California. At the time, no one would have guessed that changes in the Apollo 11 flight schedule would put Parkes center stage before an audience of more than 600 million people.
While the movie could easily sustain itself as a scientific curiosity -- and indeed, plenty of care is given to presenting accurate and awesome technical detail -- this is mostly a framing device for a sweetly crackling ensemble comedy. As a reporter swings in to define Australia as "a vital cog in this endeavor," Mitch quizzically offers the detail that Glenn is a Sagittarius, and all arrive at the bureaucratic consensus that "that's what it's all about -- licking arse." It's going to take a lot of effort to get this cacophony of perspectives into sync, which is why The Dish is special: Until the proposed moment of glory, everybody is off on their own track.
Adding the most contrast is the big, beefy Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton, human embodiment of The Tick), an ugly American sent by NASA to whip things into shape. Annoying and arrogant, he immediately causes friction with his teammates, until he starts to relax as a scientist and become a sort of cultural emissary. When we finally glimpse his peers back in the ground crew in Houston -- sporting more horrible starched shirts and lousy haircuts than the average Hollywood agency -- it's clear that he's come a long way, baby.
As the July 19 moonwalk grows closer, we get a strong taste of Parkes, where the locals are abuzz with anticipation and pageantry. After the somewhat cynical mayor, Bob McIntire (Roy Billing), gets a call from Nixon, his spirits soar, and he sets about organizing as big a festival of town pride as he can muster. Not only does this have an aphrodisiac effect on his relationship with his smart, snappy wife, May (Genevieve Moody), it defines his whole family -- from his son, Billy (Carl Snell), who can cite all the technical details of the mission, to his daughter, Marie (Lenka Kripac), who declaims the launch as "the biggest chauvinistic exercise in the history of the world."
The rest of the town is no less colorful, although, unlike Marie, they are uniformly proud and uncritical. One of many moments of delicious humor comes from the local wannabe rock band, which attempts to squeeze a new composition "by Mr. James Hendrix" into the town's gala celebration, but settles for a radical take on the American national anthem. It's also a gentle giggle when Betty the Bush Poet (Colette Mann) attempts to crystallize the moonwalk in verse, only to accidentally upstage it.
If one wishes to nitpick, it's easy to attack The Dish for being too nice for its own good, but this reaction might be due to the desensitizing effects of much contemporary cinema more than any failings on the part of the film. Also, what the casual viewer may not grasp is that the movie represents an ambitious giant step for the celebrated Australian production company Working Dog, helmed by director Rob Sitch and cohorts Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, and Jane Kennedy. Veterans of radio and television, the team made its feature debut with the low-budget hit The Castle. A strong effort, The Dish definitely signals Working Dog's emergence into the big leagues.
So where's the conflict? Where's the drama? Well, the tempered urgency of the film rides with the men under the big dish, as they sort through technical ineptitude on par with America's last election. It's almost enough to enjoy the montages along with period-specific pop songs and a surprisingly effective and inoffensive "heartwarming" score (by Edmund Choi), but Sitch keeps things hopping emotionally and technically. When the overzealous security guard (Tayler Kane) brings his pristinely bobby-socked sister (Eliza Szonert) to the dish, it leads to one of the sweetest first-date propositions in memory.
At the center of it all is Neill, holding court not just in the cramped control room, but also in the much larger arena of global nostalgia. It's a deceptively simple performance -- and a fine one, as he stands lonely but hopeful in the dawn of a new era, surrounded by folks who truly possess the right stuff.