Reviewing the Old School: The Dish (2000)

This is a movie that’s worth it for the ending, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

The third film by Working Dog Productions (second if you don’t count documentaries, and honestly why would you?) and biggest box office success, The Dish was released back in 2000 is a comedy that tells the (‘inspired by true events’) story of the Parkes Observatory (a big bloody radio telescope located in the middle of a sheep farm about twenty kilometres from the town of Parkes) and its quirky Australian technicians in the lead up to the Apollo 11 moonlanding. As well as tracking and relaying signals and communications from the travelling spacecraft enroute to and from the moon, it would also act as the primary receiver of the television signals that allowed the whole world to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s first steps upon its dusty surface.

This is a character comedy first and foremost and the characters are, for the most part, great. Unlike Working Dog’s previous film (and previous review fodder) The Castle, which really only included actors who were notable in Australia (it was Eric Bana’s film debut for Christ’s sake), The Dish‘s leads included notable Kiwi Sam ‘I-was-in-Jurassic-Park’ Neil as Cliff Buxton and American Patrick ‘I-have-one-of-the-most-recognised-voices-in-film-and-television’ Warburton as NASA representative Al Burnett. And they’re good. Neil as Cliff is calm and full of authority, puffing on his pipe, in complete control, trying to keep the peace. It means that on the rare occasion that he does tell someone to quit their bitching or loses his cool there genuine emotional impact. Warburton is quiet but obviously concerned as Al, he feels the weight of the world on his shoulders as NASA’s man on site but tries very hard to keep the stress from showing. Tom Long as Glenn is fantastic, playing a socially inept and slow nerd stereotype, but with such sincerity (I use that word way too much in these reviews, but I can’t be bothered grabbing a thesaurus) that you don’t mind. He gets the girl in the end (or at least asks her out) and it’s not some bullshit about her seeing ‘the real him’ behind the shy chitchat (most commonly in movies after the girl breaks up with some jock dickhead and realises that what she really wants is a nice guy who treats her alright). The girl in question, Eliza Szonert as Janine, is obviously attracted from the beginning of the movie to Glenn’s genuine sweetness and kind nature. Roy Billing as Mayor Bob MacIntyre takes the role seriously and has excellent comedic and dramatic timing, as does Genevieve Mooy as his wife. The only main character that I had an issue with was Kevin Harrington as Robert ‘Mitch’ Mitchell. Harrington’s a decent actor, and Mitch decent for the most part, but his character is the one that’s meant to be creating or experiencing conflict with Al, the American outsider, and I just never quite bought it. Lines yelled when they should have been spoken I think. This may have been actor, director, script or some combination of the three, but as a central character conflict I thought it just didn’t work. Having said that Harrington has excellent timing and delivered some of the best lines in the film.

The film has a large cast, possibly a little too large. All due respect to the actor but Billy Mitchell’s character, Cameron the over-zealous army cadet with a crush on the Mayor’s over-zealous (small L) liberal daughter seems superfluous in hindsight. I expect he’d there to represent a view of the Australian military (even with Australia starting to withdraw forces from the Vietnam War), but he doesn’t provide enough laughs to justify as much presence as he has in the film. Yet all the named characters can be justified, and I can’t really think of any that I’d really want culled. It makes for a cluttered cast-page, but doesn’t really make the film any worse for it. Just longer. I also like how they make an effort to give even the minor characters a little depth. Take the above mentioned Janine. She’s not just “girl who drops off lunch that Glenn has a crush on,” she’s also the security guard Rudy’s sister and a really awful driver. It’s not much, but it’s more than a lot of scripts would have given a character like her.

Rob Sitch does a good job directing, and I particularly loved scenes where the titular Dish and the men inside are simply doing their jobs. The choice of music is excellent, using some excellent 60s hits that never distract from what’s going on in the film, but will get you tapping your foot while it’s happening.

The pacing felt a little off. There are two climactic points in the film. The first takes place around the middle when a blackout briefly knocks out the Dish’s power and the backup generators weren’t primed possibly. Because this is the 1960s, this wipes all the data from the computer and for a whole day they ‘lose’ Apollo 11. They then desperately try and figure out where it is, while “bullshitting” NASA (and the American Ambassador who comes to visit). It’s a fun, desperate scene for the various characters but it drains away any tension for the second climax, where high speed winds threaten the broadcast of the actual moonwalk. I’m not sure how this could’ve been improved, but it never really feels like it was quite as dangerous a risk as they say it was.

Is the movie funny? Yes, yes it is. Not in a laugh-your-arse-off kind of way, more like a quiet chuckle and knowing smile. There are some fantastic moments that really sum up the Australian atmosphere of the film, like cricket on the satellite dish, the frequent cups of tea, the omnipresence of sheep and lamb. The Prime Minister (played by Billie Brown and only ever referred to as “Prime Minister” because John Gorton was not our most memorable PM) only appears for a few minutes overall but does a great job of portraying the well-spoken pub-brawl nature of Australian politics for most of the century. (“We’ve got a saying in the party: Don’t fuck up…” “And?” “That’s it.”)

Less of the humour than you’d expect, however, comes from any juxtaposition between the Yanks on site and the local country Aussies. Al is definitely different, is unused to working in professional environments without dress codes, formalities and chains of command, but he’s never anything but polite and is one of the most respectful people in the film. Similarly the US Ambassador, played by John McMartin, is never mocking in his attitude towards the locals and is simply a NASA-enthusiast is just bloody excited to visit Parkes and watch the landing. And that segues nicely into what this film is about.

Y’see, The Dish is not about culture clash, it’s about vindication. There’s the obvious ones. Al’s presence is vindicated in the eyes of Mitch when he helps them bullshit NASA. Mayor Bob McIntyre is vindicated for lobbying to get the Dish built in Parkes in the first place. There’s the less obvious ones. Bob’s daughter Marie (Lenka Kripac) is a teenage feminist spitting out opinions against chauvinism and imperialism without any real idea what she’s talking about (today she’d have a blog on Tumblr), and she’s surprised when Al tells her that it’s been a delight meeting and talking with her. It’s a small thing, but you get the feeling it’s the first time someone has shown any sort of approval for having strong opinions. The second half of The Dish is full of these vindicating moments, culminating right at the end with the moon walk.

The ending is wonderful. Everyone is gathered around television sets watching Neil Armstrong take the first few steps on the moon’s surface. You feel the emotion of the moment, that feeling of witnessing something truly monumental occurring, one of the greatest achievements in human history. The culmination of years of work, expense, stress, terror and hope, broadcast for six hundred million people to see, with that purest of goals: To prove that humanity could do it.

This movie is not perfect. It’s funny and clever, but there’s a list of flaws that I don’t even have time to get into, but it’s worth it for that ending. That feeling of elation and that feeling of achievement. This is a film about the Australian contribution to the television broadcast, not about NASA or the astronauts. The Cold War, the Vietnam War and the Space Race are never mentioned in the film. This is a movie not about an American achievement but a human achievement. In that final few minutes it makes you proud to be a human.

So, yeah, it’s worth it for the ending.

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