June 11, 2001 -- "The Dish" is a delightfully low-key, but not lowbrow, comedy about the small town of Parkes, New South Wales, Australia, a small group of scientists and a 1,000 ton radio telescope dish the size of a football field. The film expertly combines the charms of small town life with the grand adventures of space exploration and love.
The story takes place during the July, 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing and is supposedly based on a true story. The images sent to earth from the moon were to be relayed to the world via the dish in Australia, the biggest dish in the southern hemisphere. In charge of the dish, and proud to be a part of the whole moon shot enterprise are Cliff Buxton (played by Sam Neill of "Bicentennial Man"), the director of the facility, the feisty Ross 'Mitch' Mitchell (Kevin Harrington) and the nerdish Glenn Latham (Tom Long). They are joined by NASA supervisor Al Burnett (Burnett Patrick Warburton of "Scream 3").
Mitchell does not like Burnett. He thinks that Burnett looks down upon the Aussies as a bunch of ignorant sheepherders. It does not help that the big dish is located in fields of grazing sheep. Buxton provides a calm voice of reason, smoothing over the differences among those on the team. Latham is very smart, but has no confidence in himself. He wants to ask the prettiest girl in town (Janine Kellerman, played by Eliza Szonert) for a date, but can't muster the courage. The town's mayor, Bob McIntyre (Roy Billing) is proud that he was able to get the dish located near the town in the first place. The whole town has immense pride that it will be a part of the historic moon landing. The governor and even a U.S. Ambassador descend on the town for the occasion, building up the pressure on the small team of scientists running the dish. Under the pressure, a local band comes up with the funniest version of the American national anthem you'll ever hear.
Problems crop up. The dish loses its signal lock on the spacecraft, then a strong wind threatens to damage the dish. It is sort of like a lighter, funnier version of "Apollo 13." The film has its moments of high drama, but mostly the film is much lighter, such as the scenes in which the mayor's son patiently tries to explain to his technically-challenged father what is really going on. Any father who has heard this same kind of talk from his son or daughter about computers, can relate to that. One memorable scene has Buxton and Burnett sharing a quiet conversation while seated on the edge of the rising dish. Buxton talks about his dead wife and how the moon landing was originally her dream and how he was now carrying that dream on for her. It is a very good performance by Neill, who shows a quiet strength as the leader of the scientific team.
Several veteran Aussie actors in the film, unfamiliar to many outside that country, do an excellent job in the film, such as Genevieve Mooy (who plays the mayor's wife) and Roy Billing. The film shows us how one astonishing achievement united the world in a way it never has been united before or since. One of the most famous photographs ever taken, of the earth as it looks from the moon, came to symbolize the fragility of the earth and how small it is against the backdrop of the universe. This image is one of the last seen on the screen in the film. In some ways, this is a small film, but in other ways, it is very big. It rates a B+.
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