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.

Reviewing the Old School: The Castle (1997)

It’s not just a house, it’s a home. Just like how this isn’t just any old movie, this is and likely will remain one of the most iconically Aussie movies you can possibly watch. At least that’s the conclusion that one of my best mates and I came to watching it on Tuesday afternoon, hungover from Monday’s Australia Day revels and trying to sufficiently recover for round two in the coming evening.

Released in 1997, The Castle tells the story of the Kerrigan family, led by patriarch Darryl (Michael Caton), and their fight against the corporate powers trying to seize and bulldoze their home in order to build a new runway at the nearby airport (as in literally right next door). Told through the narration of youngest son Dale (Steven Curry) this film both reflected and informed Australian culture. On the one hand, the Kerrigans and their neighbours are a collection of stereotypes of bogan culture in the late nineties (and now). They own five cars, make casually racist remarks without any malice, have generally atrocious hair, have no wish to move outside of their insular little community, gamble, spend more time reading the trading post than the newspaper and think that the only show funnier than Hey, Hey it’s Saturday is The Best of Hey, Hey it’s Saturday.

On the other hand, it’s also informed Australian culture. If an Aussie says you should “tell him he’s dreaming” or remarks upon the “serenity” of a particular location, they’re referencing The Castle. And we reference it a lot. Seriously. Y’know how much I talk about the Borderlands games? There’s a location in the Pre-Sequel called ‘So Much Serenity.’ That’s a reference to The Castle. Shit, while doing HSC English it made up the Australian required viewing on a syllabus that included Nobel Prize winning poets. Few other films have had such a lasting effect on Aussie culture. It makes you ask the question: why has this moderately funny and heartwarming film remained so important in the national consciousness while other moderately funny and heartwarming films fallen out of it?

I think it’s because of the sincerity of the script and cast. I think that while it isn’t exactly the prettiest reflection, we do like what we see. The Kerrigans are working class, unworldly, uneducated, the eldest son is in prison, and all of them are good people without question. The Kerrigans hold to principles of mateship and community that are often pushed as being quintessentially Australian. Darryl’s first thought upon finding out that the airport is seizing homes is to run to their neighbour Jack’s house, the oldest on the block. Their lawyer, Dennis Denuto (played wonderfully by Tiriel Mora) spends much of the film terrified and out of his depth. He knows he can’t win, knows how badly they’ll lose, even remarks that he’s “shitting himself” when they have a fighting chance, but he jumps into the ring anyway because his mate’s in trouble and asked him for help. Even the ending is something sincerely, positively Australian. They don’t Erin Brockovich or Miracle on 34th Street their way to victory, pouring through pages of legal notes themselves until they find a loophole or performing some gesture that warms the heart of the judge that’ll save their homes, like in so many American films. They win because Darryl meets a retired deus ex machina… I mean QC who was an expert in constitutional law named Lawrence Hammill (played also wonderfully by Charles Tingwell) and they bond over shared pride in their children. It falls upon the idea that Australia is an egalitarian society, that mateship crosses boundaries of class, wealth and education, and that when you see a mate down on his luck you do every fucking thing possible to help him. Darryl is a good bloke, and in Australia we help good blokes.

Now, is that necessarily true? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s part of how we like to think about ourselves. And the film plays it with a perfectly straight face. The acting helps. Everyone puts out a great performance, Michael Caton in particular bringing a lot of emotion to his character. Special props go to Stephen Curry as our narrator, youngest son Dale. Dale is a character who absorbs every detail and is bluntly obvious about things, and Stephen brings a fantastic and positive honesty to the role.

The script is excellent. The editing and camera work are solid. Rob Sitch, the director and one of the writers, know what he’s doing with this kind of comedy. The soundtrack was a bit forgettable. If there’s any flaws with the film, it’s that the few female characters occupy the background a little too much, and that the comparisons between the Kerrigans’ legal battle and the issues of Aboriginal land rights, the Mabo Decision and Terra Nullius varied between hamfisted and a little cringeworthy. They’re not huge flaws, especially when compared to other Australian films, but they’re worth mentioning (and if you think I’m underplaying them right now, drop a comment, the discussion would be great).

Anyway, long story short, great film. Iconically Australian. Definitely worth a watch even if you’re not from the land down under. At the very least it’s worth mentioning as being Eric Bana’s film debut.