The Dish

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It’s not hyperbole to say that the entire world held its collective breath in support of a common cause on July 20, 1969. Those old enough to have watched the grainy black-and-white television images on that Sunday evening remember their amazement and wonder when man first walked on the moon. The story of the first moonwalk may seem like an easy target for an inspiring film, but the makers of The Dish have personalized the event by telling it through a small and intimate lens. The result is a sentimental and very charming film that uses a cast of apparently unremarkable characters to ultimately speak volumes.

Parkes, Australia is a small town, with a big radiotelescope. Their 210-foot, 1000-ton dish located in the middle of a sheep pasture has been tabbed as one of three facilities NASA will use to communicate with the Apollo 11 moon mission. Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill) heads up the Parkes Observatory, aided by dish aiming technician Mitch Mitchell (Ross Harrington) and math/radio whiz Glenn Latham (Tom Long). The wild card addition to the group is Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton, Puddy on TV’s Seinfeld). Al’s a by-the-numbers Yank engineer on loan from NASA who thinks the Aussies (especially Mitch) may be a bit too minor league to handle the job, particularly when it’s learned that Parkes will get the plum assignment of relaying the video of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon. That the Australian Prime Minister and American Ambassador are coming to town for the event only adds to the pressure.

The previous feature film from the team of director Rob Sitch and writers Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner was The Castle, which played a Melbourne family’s idiosyncrasies mostly for laughs. Here they take a more affectionate view. Parkes is shown in Norman Rockwell mode, using golden hues and small moments to paint a small town excited to be temporarily thrust into the limelight. In Local Hero fashion we meet Parkes’ mayor (Roy Billing) and his family (his daughter’s a budding militant who’s opposed to technology, his son a precocious 8-year-old who knows every detail about the space program) and other quirky locals. After a few vignettes one almost wants to move there.The observatory crew (except for American Al) is fairly unpretentious as well; they play cricket on the dish when it’s not being used. They’re mostly unaffected by the knowledge that the audience for their efforts will be the entire planet.

The film does a wonderful job of recreating the world of 1969, both through the use of then-current pop songs like "Good Morning Starshine" on the soundtrack and by reminding us that even NASA was once low-tech by today’s standards.When there’s a crisis that causes the team to temporarily lose Apollo 11’s coordinates, they don’t have laptops and the Internet at their disposal. Instead their only tools are a blackboard, slide rules, and their brains. A few times sentimentality is laid on a bit thick, with appropriate music swells and dramatic vistas. But when it comes time for the moon landing itself, Sitch wisely eases off and allows things to stand on their own; during a long dialog-free stretch he cuts between archival moonwalk footage and shots of townspeople watching in reverent silence and the Parkes crew waiting in hushed suspense. It’s a scene that will stir strong emotions in anyone who witnessed it the first time.

Sam Neill’s unassuming performance anchors a low-key and uniformly good cast of mostly fresh faces that perfectly matches the pastoral nature of the town. Patrick Warburton is also notable as the stiffly starched company man who learns to adjust to Parkes’ slower pace.

The crew at Parkes made it possible for Neil Armstrong’s "one small step for man" to be seen by six hundred million people, or one fifth of the world’s population at the time.While The Dish may not be a "giant leap for mankind", it’s a quietly moving film that delights in small things.

– Bob Aulert