Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:44 - Released 3/14/01 (Local Release: 9/14/01)

The Dish, originally released in Canada and Australia in the fall of 2000, is one of those quiet little foreign independent films that eventually, unobtrusively filters its way to American theaters with a minimum of hoopla. These are often the best films we ever see, being unburdened by the pressures and predictabilites of big-budget, star-studded Hollowwood spectacles, free to focus instead on what indie films do best: presenting interesting stories and likeable, believable characters. The sophomore effort of Australian writer/producer/director Rob Sitch, whose first film, 1997's The Castle, didn't make it to U.S. theaters until 1999, The Dish tells the story of the Parkes radio telescope in southeastern Australia, which, during the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, was one of the world's only links to the goings on of the space mission. Written by Sitch and his longtime radio/TV partners Santo Cilauro (who also served as second unit director), Tom Gleisner, and Jane Kennedy, it blends a small cast of quirky characters with authentic TV footage and radio recordings of the globally significant event, highlighting the irony of how, for a short time, the entire world was focused on the signal received and relayed by a handful of regular guys from Down Under. It is truly a joy to watch this recounting of the moon landing, with its worldwide "feelgood" appeal, especially during this most uncertain of times. Perhaps the coincidence of timing (at least of my seeing it) provides some sort of wistful contrast to the unfortunate events of last week. 1

The Dish focuses on two aspects of the story of the Parkes radio telescope and its significant role in one of the greatest events of the 20th century. The first follows the guys who run the dish, headed by Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill). His staff includes wisecracking technician Ross 'Mitch' Mitchell (Kevin Harrington) and shy maintenance engineer Glenn Latham (Tom Long), joined by American NASA man Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton), whose by-the-book sensibilities offend Mitch and intimidate Glenn. Also on the site is locally appointed watchman Rudi Kellerman (Tayler Kane), who takes his NASA-sanctioned job with comic seriousness. The second prong of the story is that of Parkes mayor Bob McIntyre (Roy Billing), who wavers between fretting over the awesome responsibility of hosting such a monumental event and savoring the beneficial press he gets from it, with visits from the American ambassador (John McMartin) and even the Australian prime minister (Bille Brown).

While we follow the telescope crew through various moments of friction, confusion, and occasional major crises leading up to the big event, not to mention Glenn's painfully hesitant flirtation with local beauty Janine (Eliza Szonert), who brings them sandwiches, we also are privy to the mayor's preparation for the visiting dignitaries. Aided by his faithful, proud wife May (Genevieve Mooy), educated on spaceflight by his young son Billy (Carl Snell), and defied by his socially conscious, budding feminist daughter Marie (Lenka Kripac), Mayor Bob undergoes several victories and embarrassments, but always with an eye on making a good showing to the Australian government, NASA, and the world. The one event that touches both sides of the story is the power outage that cuts off the electricity to both the town (during a prestigious dinner party) and the dish (causing them to lose contact with the spacecraft). What results is a kind of comic terror—a perfect contrast of snide wisecracking by those who do not understand the disasterous potential of the situation and tense re-calculations by those who do. Finally, we are treated to the unifying thrill, shared by all, of the world's first walk on the moon, with stock footage of people all over the globe witnessing possibly the greatest scientific achievement of their lifetimes. It is still thrilling.

Besides being based on an always-interesting story and being released (at least locally) at a time when such a story is desperately needed, The Dish is also just a fine piece of cinema in its own right, with a pleasing blend of character and plot, at once comic and introspective, probing some deeply personal psychological issues at the same time as delivering standard comedy and thrilling history. Neill is charming and admirable as the recently widowed team leader, and he is complemented by a talented cast. And besides, the film's got a great soundtrack of not-often-heard period pop classics. Bravo. *****

1. Although this film was first released in the U.S. in March, it didn't come to my local theater until September 14, just a few days after the 9/11 attacks.

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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