Director: Rob Sitch
Cast: Sam Neill, Kevin Harrington, Tom Long, Patrick Warburton, Genevieve Mooy, Tayler Kane, Bille Brown, Roy Billing
MPAA Rating: (for brief strong language)
Running Time: 1:37
Release Date: 3/14/01
Review by Mark Dujsik
The Apollo 11 moon landing is usually seen as a primarily American accomplishment, but The Dish gives us a different perspective on and role in the landing and, in turn, makes us think about what the event really was—a human accomplishment. It’s a quirky but balanced comedy about Parkes, a small Australian town whose biggest accomplishment is a satellite dish in the middle of a sheep field. The film is based on actual events and has fun establishing its eccentric setting and characters without ever letting them play too much over the top or overshadow the film’s central and surprisingly moving theme. On top of this, the movie gives us a chance to get to know these characters, who at first seem like simple comic types but eventually grow both in depth and in our hearts.
The large dish seems out of place in a town like Parkes, but luck has it that Parkes is on the opposite side of Houston, Texas, where NASA’s control center is. This is a fortunate coincidence because NASA needs the Parkes dish to receive and transmit radio signals and, when the time comes, the video feed from the spaceship—giving the public the age-defining images of man’s first steps on the moon. The dish is run by Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill) and his two assistants Mitch (Kevin Harrington), and Glenn (Tom Long). Along with them are Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton), a consultant from NASA, and Rudi (Taylor Kane), who’s playing security guard. This event is, obviously, a huge deal to the townsfolk and local and national politicians. The mayor Bob McIntyre (Roy Billing) now has a better chance of getting an office in Parliament, and his town is visited by the Prime Minister (Bille Brown) and an American ambassador (John McMartin). So now a town completely shadowed in obscurity is thrown into the world spotlight, and everyone hopes nothing goes wrong.
Most of the film’s humor comes from watching the quaint citizens live their lives, and how they’re in complete astonishment of their celebrity status. On one the level, the movie is a series of amusing bits, like a high school band’s attempt at the US national anthem when they’re only given hours notice to learn it or the prettiest girl in town trying to park around problematic posts. The gags are handled with a subtly realistic tone, so they never feel forced or extraneous. In addition, the jokes stem from the characters and feel more sincere than if they had stemmed from external circumstances. Most of the jokes are based within seemingly cultural whimsy, and indeed the setting itself provides an important element to the film’s success. We’re experiencing a new story—a new take on familiar events. Obviously the film must be set in Australia since it’s an actual story, but in its location, there are no recognizable ties (at least for American audiences). We have an outsider’s perspective and knowing that this accomplishment meant so much to another country gives the sense that it meant the same around the world.
In the same way as the jokes, whatever conflict arises from the outside world don’t feel strained. The movie could have been a series of mishaps and hurdles, but in keeping them to a minimum, the few scenes of the mission going awry develop both tension and importance. Instead of labored and ordinary barriers for the characters to overcome, they feel more like learning experiences. The characters do develop as the film progresses. We understand their motivations, their fears, their yearnings. It takes a little bit, but the film slowly grows into a series of dialogue exchanges, both about the mission and about their lives. Note a scene in which Cliff and Al take a ride on the dish. I could imagine this scene turning into some kind of gag, but instead, this film lets the two characters take the time to talk. Cliff’s wife died a year before the main events in the film. He quotes her often, ponders the irony that she is not alive to experience something she had dreamed about for so long, and hopes he is somehow fulfilling her dream. Al comes in like a by-the-books hard-nose but in a pivotal scene completely goes against the rules. We soon learn that he is understanding of mistakes and trusts the judgment of his colleagues to solve it in their own time.
That the film takes its time is its most important achievement. We’re given time to let the impact of this feat truly impact us. By the time the final act comes around, a true sense of accomplishment and awe has developed, and everything that has come before it seems both more important and slightly irrelevant. There’s a joyous montage sequence near the end of the film showing actual news broadcast footage, the lunar landing, and characters within the film, and around this time Neil Armstrong’s immortal words ring true. For one brief moment, all of humanity was united in wonderment, and behind it all was the resolve of the dreamers and the doers.
Copyright © 2001 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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