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Movies
'Dish, The'

'The Dish' takes an offbeat angle on Apollo 11 mission

Friday, May 04, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Australia wasn't on the cultural radar of many Americans in the 1960s, when the events that inspired "The Dish" took place. Like the contradiction of the duck-billed platypus, a mammal that lays eggs, the place seemed exotic in a prosaic sort of way -- fascinating for its seeming isolation and unusual flora and fauna but not as romantic or pristine as other South Seas locales.

 
 
'The Dish'

RATING: PG-13 for brief strong language.

STARRING: Sam Neill, Patrick Warburton.

DIRECTOR: Rob Stich.

WEB SITE: thedishmovie

CRITIC'S CALL:

   
 

We look at the country differently now, due to an influx of popular influences from Down Under: Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe, AC/DC and the BeeGees, "Crocodile Dundee" and "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," the Sydney Opera House and the 2000 Olympics.

But the world got smaller in a very different way in 1969, thanks in great part to a huge dish antenna located in a sheep pasture 365 kilometers west of Sydney. The Parkes Observatory was responsible for relaying to the world most of the live TV pictures of the historic Apollo 11 moon landing -- man's first journey to another world.

"The Dish," now at the Manor Theater and Destinta Bridgeville, shows how that event brought the entire world together in wonderment, even as it makes affectionate fun of the differences that can separate us. But it also manages to create individual characters of heart and humanity, sometimes from apparent stereotypes.

Being asked to participate in the Apollo 11 mission becomes a badge of honor but also a source of anxiety for the observatory staff, for the nearby small town of Parkes and, seemingly, for the nation of Australia as a whole. The Americans think we can do this, they tell themselves. But the biggest doubts lie in their own minds. Do we think we can do this?

The observatory chief, Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill), seems like a sure hand with a calm presence, but he nurses a private sorrow. Mathematician Glenn (Tom Long) is the quintessential nerd, too shy to ask out the girl of his dreams. Technician Mitch (Kevin Harrington) betrays his inferiority complex by imagining that NASA's man on the scene, Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton), is slighting his abilities.

And things do go wrong, from losing the spaceship's signal in flight to a windstorm that kicks up just in time to threaten the observatory's ability to relay the TV signals from the moon.

But we know how that came out. "The Dish" focuses mainly on the smaller picture, often with a bemused eye. We may be tempted to laugh at the mayor of Parkes (Roy Billing) as he sees an opportunity to hobnob with the big shots, and at his peripatetic wife (Genevieve Mooy), worrying over what color dress to wear at the big reception for the blustery prime minister (Bille Brown) and the American ambassador (John McMartin). In keeping with the general tone, the latter turns out not to be officious so much as amiably clueless.

But the more we see of the main characters, the more fully human they become. A few remain purely comical, overly eccentric figures, and sometimes the movie strains for a laugh, like in a welcoming banner for the visiting dignitaries that misspells one of their titles.

But that's just about the only false step by director Rob Stich, who co-wrote the screenplay with Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Jane Kennedy. By movie's end we have explored the emotional moonscape of yearning and loss, fear and striving, triumph through adversity, watching the little engine find out it really could.

And what a payoff! Now, 32 years later, can we even imagine having the audacity to dream of anything as lofty as the moon mission, finding the will to pursue it and the money to finance it, fending off the naysayers and uniting the disunited -- a world, a nation, a city, four guys in a sheep field -- to the common cause of a giant leap for mankind?

"The Dish" humbly reminds us of the grandness we can accomplish, if we are only willing to try.



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