Parkes satellite dish


The amiable comedy recalls how the historic event was tracked from a sheep farm in New South Wales-and why that was so important.

"The Dish" does a wonderful job of evoking the awesome effect ofthe Apollo 11 mission, which culminated with Neil Armstrong taking, in his own famous words, "one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind, " becoming the first person to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969. It reminds us of how transcendent an event it was, lifting us up for a moment above the petty and mundane affairs of everyday life.

"The Dish" accomplishes this with a remarkable degree of suspense by presenting the great space adventure from a fresh perspective and context; it unfolds in a hearty, good-natured Australian comedy that affectionately depicts how the citizens of a small town become connected to the Apollo moon flight.

For the Apollo 11 mission NASA chose the 110-foot-wide satellite dish at Parkes Observatory, located in the middle of a sheep farm in New South Wales, as a backup to its prime receiver in Goldstone, Calif. In short, if Goldstone experienced a transmission failure, then Parkes could transmit the moon landing to expectant television viewers around the world.

Mixing fictional characters and some actual incidents that happened to the Australian team in the course of the four-day Apollo mission, director Rob Sitch and co-writers-producers Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleiser and Jane Kennedy first introduce us to Australian team leader Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill, in an effectively understated performance). Now in his 80s, he is overcome with the memory of those tense, exciting days more than 30 years earlier as he visits "the dish, " which incidentally is still part of NASA and still surrounded by a sheep paddock.

A scientist whose 52nd birthday coincides with the moon landing, Buxton is a calm, understanding scientist overseeing a thin-skinned technician, the slightly pudgy Mitch (Kevin Harrington) and an ultra-shy calculations expert, the gangling Glenn (Tom Long). Representing NASA is Al Burton (Patrick Burton), a powerfully built American with a formal, serious manner. Al is a square in the nicest sense, and the deep, resonant tones of Warburton's voice brings out the humorous aspect of his Al's sober, square-jawed Dick Tracy demeanor.

The filmmakers cut away from the satellite dish's control room to acquaint us with key citizens in the quaint nearby Victorian town of Parkes as it prepares celebrations for the grand event. Sitch and crew, whose previous comedy, "The Castle, " was also a smash Down Under, are especially fine in drawing their dual portrait of the town mayor, Bob (Roy Billing), and his wife, Maisie (Genevieve Mody), who urges her husband to call her May in the presence of the Prime Minister (Bille Brown) and the American ambassador (John McMartin).

Short, bald and stocky, Bob and Maisie, a middle-aged brassy blond, are a solid, down-to-earth eminently likable, quintessentially Aussie middle-class couple, understandably excited by being suddenly thrust into a major international undertaking and media event. It is equally understandable that Bob would want to capitalize politically on the occasion without being heavy-handed or unscrupulous about it.

Given the wonderfully drawn portrait of Bob and Maisie and the men interacting with one another at the satellite station, it's too bad that the filmmakers surround "The Dish" with contrived, cornball running gags that smack of Disney family flicks of yore. (Not helping matters is Edmund Choi's trite, lump-in-the-mouth score.)

What gives the film a sharp edge of pathos to offset some often very broad humor is its pervading sense of how much it means for Australia to play a crucial role in a key achievement of Western civilization.

That is no small success on the part of the filmmakers, and it gives "The Dish" its punch and substance.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for brief, strong language. Times guidelines: The film is suitable for all ages.

'The Dish'

Sam Neill: Cliff Buxton

Kevin Harrington: Mitch

Tom Long: Glenn

Patrick Warburton: Al

Roy Billing: Bob

Genevieve Mody: Maisie

A Warner Bros. Pictures and Working Dog presentation in association with Distant Horizon. Written, produced and conceived by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleiser, Jane Kennedy and Rob Sitch. Director Rob Sitch. Producer Michael Hirsch. Cinematographer Graeme Wood. Editor Jill Bilcock. Music Edmund Choi. Costumes Kitty Stuckey. Production designer Carrie Kennedy. Art director Bill Morieson. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

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