Unknown to most people, the tiny Australian hamlet of Parkes played a significant role in the 1969 moon landing. Parkes, you see, was home to the largest radio telescope in the southern hemisphere, and one of the most powerful in the world. NASA could communicate with Apollo 11 when the U.S. side of the Earth was facing the moon; they needed Australia to help out the other half of the time.
That’s the basis for “The Dish,” a charmingly old-fashioned film that follows the true-life story of Parkes and its huge radio telescope.
Sam Neill is Cliff Buxton, the man in charge of operations at the dish. His right-hand men are argumentative Mitch (Kevin Harrington) and simple-minded young Glenn (Tom Long). NASA sends one of its own guys, Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton), to supervise thinks, which rankles Mitch despite Cliff’s insistence Al is just doing his job and doesn’t mean to be so uptight.
The town, needless to say, is agog over its involvement with the moon landing. Mayor Bob McIntyre (Roy Billing) leads everyone in civic pride, while shmoozing a U.S. ambassador (John McMartin) and waiting for a visit from the prime minister (Bille Brown).
The film has only two real conflicts, plot-wise. First, a power outage causes the Australians to lose contact with Apollo 11 during the time they’re supposed to be babysitting it. Second, high winds threaten to topple the massive telescope during the actual moon walk.
It is somewhat disappointing that nothing more than that occurs, and that these complications are handled without ever becoming real nail-biters; it’s almost as if they go on in the background, with the mildly nutty Parkes characters taking center stage. From a historical standpoint, if there were no serious dramas, I’m glad the filmmakers didn’t make some up; from an audience standpoint, if there were no serious dramas, then why make a movie about it?
Here’s why: The characters. Movies like “Waking Ned Devine,” “Saving Grace” and the recent “Chocolat” threaten to make us grow tired of small-town characters in non-American settings, but their welcome has not been worn out quite yet. The folks in Parkes are daft but not crazy; endearing but not pitiable.
The movie, more quaint than funny, celebrates old-fashioned values and patriotism. There is no sex or nudity — in fact, there’s nothing even close to it. Stammering Glenn tries to work up the guts to ask pretty Janine (Eliza Szonert) on a date, and an eager neighbor boy keeps pestering the mayor’s daughter. That’s as far as it goes. You’d expect either couple to walk to the soda fountain and have a malt, then maybe sit on a porch swing for a few hours.
That attitude blends nicely with the moon landing itself, which of course is one of the greatest symbols we have of old-fashioned achievement, courage and strength. Director Rob Sitch wisely lets the moon walk speak for itself, showing the actual footage and audio feed with very little creative embellishment. It is in those final moments, when the goal is met and all the world swells with pride, that “The Dish” makes up for its previous dalliances and shortcomings. Re-living that experience — or seeing it for the first time — is enough to make anyone’s spirits soar. And a movie that makes your spirits soar is a good movie.
B (; )