(director/writer: Rob Sitch; screenwriters: Santo Cilauro/Tom Gleisner; cinematographer: Graeme Wood; editor: Jill Bilcock; music: Edmund Choi; cast: Sam Neill (Cliff Buxton), Patrick Warburton (Al Burnett), Kevin Harrington (Ross Mitchell), Tom Long (Glenn Latham), Tayler Kane (Rudi), Eliza Szonert (Janine), Carl Snell (Billy McIntyre), Roy Billing (Bob McIntyre), Bille Brown (Prime Minister), John McMartin (American Ambassador), Genevieve Mooy (May), Lenka Kripac (Marie McIntyre); Runtime: 104; Warner Brothers; 2000-Australia)

“I tip my hat to the Australian filmmaker Rob Sitch for making an exciting and comical film about a subject that shouldn’t be exciting or comical.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

I tip my hat to the Australian filmmaker Rob Sitch (The Castle) for making an exciting and comical film about a subject that shouldn’t be exciting or comical and for keeping the patriotic gestures in check. It’s the true story based on the July 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, where Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon. While the world watched in awe the rural town of Parkes, New South Wales, Australia, had a special interest in the mission: it provided the dish to relay the television pictures of the moon landing back to earth. Their dish was the biggest one in the Southern Hemisphere (the size of a football field) and was located on a sheep farm outside of town. NASA aimed to use the dish as a backup to its prime receiver in Goldstone, Calif. But when the astronauts decided not to sleep after landing on the moon, the change in Apollo 11’s flight schedule made the Australian dish NASA’s only hope for giving the world live images of mankind’s first steps on the moon. This feel-good story about some quirky characters who were part of the team that helped make it a success, is accomplished with a good-natured folksy look at those working the dish and facing some adversities in their job.

The film opens as the sober-minded Cliff Buxton (Neill), a man now in his eighties, comes back to take a nostalgic look at the dish fitted with the 64m Telescope that makes him beam with pride as he thinks back to the Apollo mission. It is now a tourist attraction as well as still being the largest operating radio telescope on the southern hemisphere and is still actively used for single dish operation as well as for (global) VLBI. The security guard is telling him to get back in the tourist area to take the tour. The story is told from his viewpoint in flashback. He was then a recently widowed 52-year-old during the Apollo mission and was in charge of the dish’s operation and supervised the timid mathematician Glenn (Long) and the cheeky Mitch (Harrington). NASA assigned the more formally dressed and the more official functioning technician Al Burnett (Warburton) to oversee the operation and make sure things ran on schedule.

The film captured the conflicts these genial characters had. They at first found Al to be stuffy but soon found a genuine camaraderie when faced with a man-made problem — Mitch, the man in charge of the equipment, accidentally forgot to put the fuel lines in the generator which caused a power outage and loss of contact with Apollo. There was also a nature problem as great gusts of wind at more than 60 m.p.h. started just when they were asked to send back the television feed of the moon walk, which caused the crew anxiety if the dish would be able to function in such conditions without them taking risks.

Bob McIntyre (Billing), the cheery and ambitious mayor, the one who brought the satellite dish to Parkes, has a special interest in the success of the mission. He is hoping to run for higher office. The mayor welcomes such dignitaries as the Australian prime minister and the United States ambassador, as they arrive in Parkes to watch the historical event. The story included how provincial the locals were and introduced a charming subplot of a romance blooming between the tongue-tied, calculations expert, Glenn and the perky Janine (Szonert), the sister of the dish’s buffoon-like go-getter of a security guard, Rudi (Tayler Kane). The mayor’s kids also had a certain charm as his young son Billy was an avid follower of the flight, while his glum teenage daughter Marie had been radicalized politically and had reservations about it — she rejected it as part of a CIA operation.

“The Dish” in its serious moments gives credit to Australia for coming out of its backward isolation and participating in a positive way to a great event in the history of mankind. It’s a call to the future for Australia, as Neil Armstrong’s small step and giant leap for mankind also becomes part of their legacy due to a group of technicians who showed a lot of heart.

REVIEWED ON 5/11/2002 GRADE: B +