In 1969, when the world watched as man went the moon, America needed help from Australia to see it. After all, if you stop and think about it, half the time the Apollo XI was on the other side of the world from Houston (or rather, since it was the world that was turning, Houston was on the other side of the world from the Apollo XI). At the time Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moon walk was scheduled, Australia had front-row seats.
Today, more than thirty years later, the Aussies are coming to our aid again: In a movie season when it seems Hollywood only knows how to make gross-out sex comedies, here is The Dish, a weightlessly charming, loosely fact-inspired ensemble comedy about a little Australian town with a huge radio telescope, and how it had a big day in the sun when man walked on the moon.
This being Australia, you are not surprised to learn that the radio telescope — the biggest in the southern hemisphere, about the size of a football field — is located in the middle of a sheep paddock. But there’s a good reason for the dish’s location, explains Cliff Buxton (affable Sam Neill, best known for Jurassic Park), the laid-back, pipe-puffing scientist in charge of the dish: The region’s topography creates the mild, windless conditions necessary for the dish’s operation. This being a comedy, you won’t be surprised if unusual weather patterns materialize at the least convenient moment (as in fact a closing title card tells us really happened).
And this being an Australian comedy, you won’t be surprised that the town of Parkes, New South Wales, is populated by an appealingly quirky cast of local characters. There’s the small-town mayor (Roy Billing), who’s delighted to be able to claim credit for having championed the suddenly-important dish, and worries about impending visits from the prime minister and the American ambassador; the mayor’s wife (Genevieve Mooy), who wishes her husband would start calling her "May" instead of "Maisie" and refer to her new dress as "lemon" instead of "yellow"; Rudi the security guard (Tayler Kane), who patrols the dish grounds and spends more time refining his "sector" system than contributing to any actual security; Janine (Eliza Szonert), Rudi’s sister, who walks into the control room whenever she feels like it and brings refreshments for Cliff Buxton’s team; Mitch the technician (Kevin Harrington), who stammers and turns red-faced whenever the pretty Janine comes around; and many others as well.
The Dish is closer in spirit to gentle British and Irish comedies like Waking Ned Devine and The Matchmaker than more characteristically edgy Australian comedies such as Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Sam Neill, leading the Australian cast, sets the tone; his deliberate, relaxed performance as Cliff is at the center of the film, as he plays Andy Griffith to the residents of this down-under Mayberry.
Patrick Warburton ("Seinfeld" ’s uber-manly "Puddy"), with his comic-book hero physique and looks here muted by a business suit and bookish Clark-Kent spectacles, occasions an element of conflict as Al, a NASA official stationed at the dish for the duration of the project. Naturally, Cliff’s staff (one in particular) resents this Yank intruder with his by-the-book attitude, whose mere presence seems to say that NASA doesn’t really trust these blokes to run their own dish.
Will the crew come to respect Al, and will Al loosen up and bend the rules for them at some point? Will tongue-tied Mitch work up the nerve to ask out Janine? Will technical problems threaten to embarrass the dish crew in front of the American ambassador unless they come up with an ingenious solution? Will everything work out all right in the end?
What do you think? A film like this doesn’t depend on suspense and major plot twists. Rather, it depends upon an acute sense of place and character, on a real affection for its likable cast and their small-town milieu, and on a nostalgia for the innocence of an earlier time, for the sense of awe that the moon mission brought to the world in 1969.
This note of nostalgia and loss is elegantly captured by a poignant framing device with Sam Neill as an old man, revisiting the sheep paddock where the dish still stands. The security guard he meets is much more efficient than Rudi, and has no idea that the old man before him once helmed this enormous dish in its greatest hour (much less that the same man and his crew occasionally played cricket right up inside the dish itself).
We’ve all looked wistfully, I suppose, on the dishes of our own past: places that are an integral part of who we have been and who we have become. We can’t go back to those places, but it’s important to be able to look back on them with affection and appreciation. Watching The Dish is an experience like that.
Writing about film, I sometimes say, can be a little education in just about everything. But watching movies can be a miseducation in just about everything. Even fact-based films are often, even usually, unreliable guides to their subject matter.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.