The Dish



Australia 2000
dir Rob Sitch
scr Sitch, Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy
cin Graeme Wood
100-104 mins
stars Sam Neill, Roy Billing, Kevin Harrington, Patrick Warburton

Though it’s neither as well-made nor as funny as Chopper, the last Australian comedy to gain international release, The Dish is a genial, thoroughly likeable crowdpleaser, succeeding in its modest Ealing-Down-Under aspirations. Made by the same creative team behind The Castle, The Dish has a better chance of translating domestic success into foreign coin, given the wide appeal of its fact-based story and, more importantly, the Hollywoodish way it’s told.

The picture is bookended by a drab framing device – an old codger (Neill, in convincing make-up and grey hair) visits a huge radio telescope, the ‘dish’ of the title, located near Parkes, a dusty outback town. Neill thinks back 30 years to the summer of 1969, when the dish played a vital role in NASA’s Apollo 11 mission to the moon, relaying the historic images of Neil Armstrong’s first lunar footsteps to TV stations all over the world.

Faced with a story whose outcome is known by all audiences, The Dish opts to emphasise character over a plot which isn’t heavy on drama – we’re introduced to Neill’s fellow scientists, tetchy Mitch (Harrington), dopey youngster Glenn (Tom Long), straight-arrow NASA man Al (Warburton), and to the Parkes townsfolk headed by Mayor McIntyre (Billing), who hopes that the town’s moon-mission fame will boost him at the ballot box. Already pressurised by the project’s tight deadlines, the Parkes team are put under further stress when they’re visited first by the US ambassador (John McMartin) and then by the Australian Prime Minster (Bille Brown), leading to the standard comic scenes as the technicians and civilians bend over backwards to impress their illustrious guests. Matters aren’t helped by mechanical problems with the dish which call for drastic, risky solutions – while later, at the crucial stage, a freak wind threatens to ruin everything…

The Dish isn’t so much directed as edited, nimbly switching between the Parkes scenes and actual TV footage from the moon landing broadcasts, to a soundtrack of contemporary chart hits. This approach manages to recreate some of the worldwide tension and wonder aroused by the Apollo mission – we see the back of the Pope’s head as he sits, glued to the screen – while also underlining Parkes’ crucial role as a small cog in a vast machine. Though it’s competently put together, the film doesn’t need to resort to quite so much heavy-handed ‘inspirational’ music, given the strength of the cast and the economical script. This is an unusual Australian film emphasising links with the USA, rather than the UK, though it’s really more concerned with projecting the best aspects of the Aussie character – good humour, ingenuity, straight-forwardness, teamwork. Maybe The Dish is intended as an affectionate rebuke to pictures such as U-571 and Saving Private Ryan, in which Americans pull off great historical deeds single-handed – for this, if no other reason, it deserves to succeed wherever it’s shown.

31st January, 2001