Three senior members of the Australian Department of Radio Physics,
Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill), Ross 'Mitch' Mitchell (Kevin Harrington) and
Glenn Latham (Tom Long), and their NASA associate, Al Burnett (Patrick
Warburton), have a problem on their hands. Their 210-foot, 1,000-ton
dish -- a hunk of metal set in the middle of nowhere in an Australian
sheep paddock near the town of Parkes, Australia -- has lost Apollo 11.
It's 1969, and it's their responsibility to transmit the television
signals of the moon walk to the rest of the world. It's an awesome
responsibility for these 4 blokes, but in this heartwarming film, these
guys are up for their mission. The first of their problems is caused by
a brief power outage, but in a cute and imaginative illustration of the
fundamental difference between mathematics and engineering, these slide
rule jockeys figure a way out of their predicament and locate the "lost"
This ground level view of space exploration is actually based on a true
story. Rob Sitch, the director and co-writer of the marvelously offbeat
Australian comedy THE CASTLE, brings together his writing team from THE
CASTLE (Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Jane Kennedy), and the surprise
is that they are as good with THE DISH's light comedy as they were with
THE CASTLE's over-the-top brand of humor. Although there are plenty of
laughs in THE DISH, it is the amazing but simple story of dedication
that remains in your memory after you leave the theater.
Making extensive use of archival footage and audio clips, the movie does
a masterful job of transporting us back in time. Graeme Wood's warm
cinematography has the saturated colors of a 1960s TV set. The musical
choices are an evocative choice of memorable old pop tunes and moving
dramatic pieces. In short, this is a movie that really knows how to set
The writers provide rich stories and back stories for a large number of
characters. We get to know everyone from the townsfolk to the Prime
Minister. The best defined is Cliff Buxton, the pipe smoking "dish
master," who looks and acts like a revered college professor. Cliff's
wife died a year ago, and he still bears the scars of her death.
The residents of Parkes are a hoot. They wonder what the astronauts do
when they need to do "number 2." Can't hold it for 4 days, they figure.
"I reckon, they oughta try one of these," one guy says, pointing to a
local "delicacy." "Block 'em up for a week."
Most of the time, the dish is a hotbed of inactivity as the scientists
inside wait for the earth to rotate. (The dish shares prime tracking
responsibility with a dish in California, which follows the capsule when
it is on California's side of the globe.) But when disaster strikes,
the magic of science comes through as these engineers work through the
night with blackboard and chalk as their prime tools. The wonderment of
scientific endeavor hasn't been so well displayed since OCTOBER SKY.
When most people think of space command and control, they think of NASA,
in which thousands of scientists toiled away for years. What is
remarkable about this story is that without these four unsung heroes,
July 20, 1969 would have lost most of its impact. Without live
pictures, the moonwalk would not have been nearly so dramatic or
But this is a sweetly humorous, not a somberly serious, movie. The
dish's clueless guard, Rudi Kellerman (Tayler Kane), maintains the
world's loosest security, but he tries to do his best. "Halt! Who goes
there?" he demands sternly one dark night when he detects a breach of
the compound area. "Baaaa," the intruder replies.
THE DISH runs a fast 1:40. The film is incorrectly rated PG-13 for brief
strong language. I listened hard and don't remember any profanities.
The film would clearly be acceptable for all ages, but younger children
will likely get fidgety.
Copyright © 2001 Steve Rhodes