The Dish
review by Elias Savada, 4 April 2001

At the start of the American home video version of Rob Sitch's inaugural sleeper, The Castle, the first preview promotes A Walk on the Moon, which coincidentally deals with the same historical imprint as The Dish, his second feature born from the same mixed-up working-dog minds responsible for both extremely enjoyable Australian ensemble comedies. The new film is a whimsical, character-driven charmer based on a little known episode surrounding the 1969 lunar landing, wherein a mammoth, 1,000-ton radio telescope—the most powerful in the Southern Hemisphere—becomes the primary receiver for the televised pictures of mankind's first steps on the moon. Armed with the marketing clout of Warner Bros., a growing number of favorable reviews, and great word-of-mouth, The Dish blasts off into the proud skies that shine on a nation and the world, as a small group of persevering scientists, a wacky slice of small-town humor, and a big metal dish in the middle of a sheep paddock combine for a triumphant splash down for extended orbits at area theaters. Gale force success predicted.

Most of us here in the States think of Mad Max and Crocodile Dundee as prime Aussie filmmaking commodities, but The Dish is destined to become much more than a down-under footnote in global cinematic history. The underlying element of ingenuity in the face of adversity is similar to that found in October Sky, Joe Johnston's affectionate tale of budding aeronautical talent in the backwoods of a West Virginia mining town. The Dish bears a comic affinity as much to the British Ealing comedies of fifty years ago as it does to Australia's quirky, more recent, counterparts; films like Muriel's Wedding and Strictly Ballroom (edited by Jill Bilcock, who spliced and diced The Dish). The story was actually mulled around by producer-writers Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy, and Rob Sitch long before they made The Castle.

Told in extended flashback, The Dish begins with a gray-haired, liver-spotted Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill) reflecting upward on the heroic moments of 30 years earlier, looking skyward at the football field-wide telescope in rural Parkes, New South Wales. This scene is reminiscent of one that begins The Castle, where daffy patriarch Darryl Kerrigan stares up at his own family's dish—a television aerial atop his tacky domicile. It's the same reflection of pride in their eyes, of a gratifying humanist determination that imbues each film with ultimate David vs. Goliath undertones. In the former, it's a family and community's battle against a real estate conglomerate; in The Dish the enemies are the freakish forces of nature. Pluckish wit and disarming humor are the sling-filled stones that defeat each giant. One small satisfying tv antenna for man, one large inspiring Dish for mankind.

As the secondary of two central communications points (the other being in Goldstone, California), the Parkes observatory was called into action when the crew of Apollo XI decided to alter their moonwalk schedule. Prior to that last-minute adjustment, the townspeople had been preparing for the arrival of the amiable American Ambassador (John McMartin) and Australia's puffy Prime Minister (Bille Brown), part of the week long celebration in advance of the man-on-the-moon outing. Homespun mayor Bob McIntyre (Roy Billing), instrumental for the building of the telescope in his burb's backyard, tries to remain calm amid the town's excited citizens, his socially liberated wife May (Genevieve Mooy), their two children, and the staff manning the telescope.

The scientists form their own microcosm. Senior scientist Buxton is a recently widowed, pipe-smoking, calming center of the encroaching storm. Swirling around the dishmaster are Ross "Mitch" Mitchell, a bitchin' technician who fears his cultural territory being invaded by "Ugly" American and NASA consultant Al Burnett (Seinfeld's Patrick Warburton). Social butterfly and electronics whiz Glenn Latham (Tom Long) finds it's easier to locate a lost spacecraft than to break the ice with the lovely, cashmere-encrusted, mini-skirted town beauty Janine (Eliza Szonert), who provides snacks to the men and her brother Rudi (Tayler Kane), a bumbling, over-precautious security guard at the installation.

Problems, all flecked with abundant humor, arrive when a temporarily blackout ("Not that damn pie server" the mayor suggests as the cause of the disaster) drives the dish out of whack and out of touch with the moon-bound astronauts. A slick cover-up by the scientific quartet keeps Houston busy as the boys of summer get out their slide rules, blackboard and chalk, and thinking caps to fix the problem. The unannounced arrival of the U.S. Ambassador at this most inopportune time provides for one of the funniest bits that leave the diplomat fully impressed yet blissfully unaware that all contact with the shuttle has been lost.

As the yokels party, welcoming their overseas guest with a truly inspired rendition of a national anthem unlike any other, another destiny-filled moment occurs just before Neil Armstrong settles to the lunar surface: sixty-five-mile-per-hour winds pummel the area and elicit duct-tape heroics of grand proportions.

Director Sitch doesn't misstep in getting honest performances from every member of his laid-back cast. The pace is pleasantly brisk and Sitch has a marvelous flare for showing Parkes in wonderful light, especially in early morning sequences when the town awakens (the milk truck in the street, Good Morning Starshine on the soundtrack). Even the smaller roles (the mayor's kids, the brave but oblivious reservist cadet/next-door neighbor) manage their own small poignant moments.

The cheering and comedy never stop in The Dish. The sugar-coated back-slapping daring-do of the filmmakers and the performers is glazed with more than enough intelligence, perfect timing, and a rousing soundtrack (featuring well-selected hits of the day) that leaves little escape not to be honestly moved to tears and laughter after watching the film. We who were glued to our television sets back in '69 can now gloriously relive the moment. Beyond it's historical perspective, The Dish is an entertaining, funny, and strong lesson in collaborative initiative, community spirit, and a rousing sense of humor. What a lovely adventure!

Read the Elias Savada's interview.

Directed by:
Rob Sitch

Sam Neill
Kevin Harrington
Tom Long
Patrick Warburton
Genevieve Mooy
Tayler Kane
Bille Brown
Roy Billing
Eliza Szonert
John McMartin

Written by:
Santo Cilauro
Tom Gleisner
Jane Kennedy
Rob Sitch

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned
Some material ma
be inappropriate for
children under 13






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