2000, PG-13, 101 min. Directed by Rob Sitch. Starring Sam Neill, Kevin Harrington, Tom Long, Patrick Warburton, Roy Billing, Genevieve Mody, Taylor Kane, Bille Brown, Lenka Kripac.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 27, 2001
Sometimes the footnotes to great historical events are more interesting than the events themselves. To say this is the case with the subject of Roy Sitch's The Dish -- which gives us the heretofore unknown (at least in the U.S.) true-life brouhaha brought about by NASA's decision to use a large satellite dish in the Aussie backwater of Parkes, New South Wales, as the backup image relay station for the 1969 moonwalk -- is stretching things a bit. After all, very little in the history of mankind comes anywhere close to eclipsing Neil Armstrong's first tentative step onto another world, and though the dotty citizenry of Parkes is clearly thrilled that its tiny farming community is playing such a crucial link on this momentous occasion, it's still no match for the actual extraterrestrial event itself, which here makes from some teary third-act dramatics. Sitch (The Castle) levels his rosy, nostalgic gaze on Parkes and comes up with a microcosm of late-Sixties life that could be Anytown, USA. Much of the film takes place deep within the radio telescope's basement nerve center (the dish itself sits in the middle of sheep paddock), which poses a challenge to the director, cast, and audience alike; there's nothing as treacherously dull as watching techies twirl knobs and spout impenetrable jargonese. However, when the telescope's four-man team, at one point, loses contact with the astronauts (and apparently this snafu really did happen), the event is played for both laughs and Aussie pride. Not surprisingly, it works, as does the film, which is as ingratiating as they come. At the film's core is the outpost's head Cliff Buxton (Neill), a recent widower who runs his team with a laconic hand and a rumpled shirt. He's the opposite of every high-strung, off-kilter sci-guy Hollywood usually employs in these situations, and Neill brings the character a gruff, stately charm. Buxton oversees a pair of younger scientists, the rough and tumble Mitch (Harrington) and the lovesick Glenn (Long). Meanwhile, NASA has sent its own observer to clutter things up in the form of Al Burnett (Warburton, late of Seinfeld). I've never quite taken to Warburton's mountainous frame or basso profundo voice -- outside of his role as Seinfeld's Puddy, he's always overshadowed everything else on screen -- but here, behind a pair of geeky black specs and beneath a NASA-regulation brush cut, he exudes American mid-Sixties gung-ho panache. Orbiting The Dish's historical plot machinations are a number of lesser storylines involving Parkes' beloved mayor (Billing), his hippie daughter (Mody) and her military suitor, and the ongoing NASA/Parkes brinkmanship. Utterly nostalgic for that one moment in time when all the world held its breath and watched a distant moon, The Dish is also by its very heart-on-sleeve nature utterly charming as well. Would that today's space flights could engender such giddy emotions.