The Dish (2001)

by Mike Ward


"Oh, nothing. Never mind."

It’s July 1969, just days just before the historic, first-ever NASA moon landing, but two scientists are momentarily distracted from this occasion’s spectacle and gravity by the more humble spectacle of young love. They look on, alternately wincing and hopeful, as shy-boy Glenn Latham (Tom Long) tries to muster the courage to ask shy-girl Janine (Eliza Szonert) out on a date. As apprehension seizes Janine and Glenn—they stop mid-sentence, ask each other what they were going to say, answer, “Nothing”—the two scientists look to one another. “Oh, this is painful,” one says, referring, we presume, to the agony of wondering whether Glenn will ever find the bravery to short-circuit this empty exchange and let Janine know he digs her.

The scientists are Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill) and “Mitch” Mitchell (never a member of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and played by Kevin Harrington), and by this late point in The Dish, you may be feeling their pain. A good-natured comedy about an Australian radio telescope crew charged with receiving the signals from the Apollo 11 spacecraft as it hurtles toward the moon, The Dish suffers from a halting execution so that the entire movie seems like a larger, longer version of Glenn and Janine’s halting conversation. More than once the movie seems about to engage a conflict, much as Janine and Glenn seem, more than once, about to find a topic they can discuss. But just as these conflicts start to take shape, the movie sheepishly resolves them with: “Oh, nothing. Never mind.”

cover art

The Dish

Director: Rob Sitch
Cast: Sam Neill, Kevin Harrington, Patrick Warburton, Genevieve Mooy, Eliza Szonert, Tom Long, Lenka Kripac

(Warner Brothers)

The movie’s main concern is whether or not the Parkes radio observatory’s crew will be equal to the task of receiving Apollo 11’s signals and thus enabling the spacecraft’s all-important broadcast to the world at large. Early on it doesn’t seem so. The link to the Apollo rocket is nearly lost because NASA erroneously sends Parkes northern hemisphere coordinates instead of the southern ones that the Australian observatory needs, hinting at a theme of cultural centrism that the movie never develops. Or, only hours after they first lock on to Apollo 11’s faint signal, the people at Parkes lose it again when a freak power outage wipes out their computer banks. Cliff, Mitch, and the adorably timid Glenn spend great dollops of screen time trying to recompute Apollo 11’s trajectory, covering a blackboard with an engineer’s esoteric, mathematical scrawl. At the same time, they scramble to protect Mitch—and Parkes’ role in the mission—by pseudo-hilariously forging a conversation with Neil Armstrong for the U.S. Ambassador to Australia, and Cliff trades hoo-rah bromides with NASA representative Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton) about the vital importance of the mission and the necessity of reestablishing the communication link with Apollo 11, no matter what the cost.

After a full night of such activities, the Parkes crew gazes at the moon in the clear dawn sky and suddenly reasons, simply and transparently, that if the Apollo 11 is going to the moon, all they need to do is point their telescope at the moon and wiggle it around a bit. They do this, and the radio link is quickly—though at the last minute—reestablished. Once the problem is resolved, it becomes evident that all the frenzied blackboard calculations and slapstick attempts at cover-up that preceded it were unnecessary, a plot cul-de-sac. Oh, nothing. Never mind.

One reason why the Apollo 11 drama is never really engaging is that the movie is more concerned with its subplots. These two currents of action—the mission of Parkes the observatory, and the conflicts of the people who live in and visit Parkes the town—run side by side without meeting. An Australian boy band, charged with learning the American national anthem for a ball to be thrown in Parkes to celebrate the moon shot, first proposes to play a Jimi Hendrix song, then at the big event mistakenly plays, instead of the anthem, the theme song from Hawaii Five-O. Glenn and Janine hem and haw through their awkward mating ritual, kind-of charmingly but irrelevantly. Cliff and Al discuss the cultural divide between NASA and the Australian scientists, and also touch on a backstory concerning Cliff’s late wife. All this is at best tangential to the problems at the Parkes observatory, but the movie is preoccupied with it nonetheless.

The movie is also preoccupied to distraction with the pop-culture trappings of the late 1960s. Its intrusive soundtrack—when not saturated with John Williamsy string music completely out of cadence with events on-screen—runs more or less continually from one ‘60s top-40 song to another. Viewers who are so-minded (or this so-minded viewer, anyway) may think of the pop-ditty soundtrack of Andrew Fleming’s Dick (set two years later, in 1972). But where Dick‘s music cleverly parallels the movie’s actions—the Nixon resignation set to the tune of “You’re So Vain”—the found soundtrack in The Dish seems much less deliberate. It’s more a symptom of free-floating nostalgia than a way of reconstituting the conflict between the moon landing’s poetic aspirations and its role as a PR weapon in the Cold War, a role that made it a cousin to the twin travesties of Vietnam and, later, Watergate. The Dish never hints at the upheaval of the era, and never portrays the moon shot as anything other than a glorious, exploratory endeavor, a hallmark of human achievement unblemished by political motivations.

Or almost never. Along with its affinity for contemporaneous pop, The Dish also favors moon shot-related stock footage: it opens with a classic shot of a Saturn rocket ejecting one of its stages. Throughout the film, you see shots of mission control, the lunar lander in orbit, and a captivated tv-viewing public. It also features a montage of spectators from around the world, watching as Walter Cronkite narrates Apollo 11’s situation, including a handful of American Airborne troops, presumably fighting in Vietnam. Their faces seem twinged with something other than the uncritical awe evident in the faces that come before and after them.

Still, this is an unconnected moment. The closest the movie comes to reflecting on the weightier issues of 1969 is in a minor comic subplot between a recently politicized young woman, Marie (Lenka Kripac), and her neighbor Keith (Matthew Moore), an enthusiastic soon-to-be recruit in the Australian army. Keith’s attraction to Marie cannot be explained except by the furious and irrational desires of adolescence, since the two have nothing in common. As Keith drills endlessly and pines for a chance someday to fight in a real war, Marie storms about with bra-burning intensity, asking her father (Roy Billings)—the mayor of Parkes and an aspiring parliamentarian—to use his political clout to end the national draft. Predictably, she rebukes Keith’s annoying frequent advances, once calling him a “fascist.” The two of them are a tidy, if somewhat primitive, symbol of the ideological conflict that surrounded the moon shot.

Yet the movie dismisses both of them. Most everyone witnesses Keith’s military zeal with nonplussed amusement and rejects Marie’s leftist criticisms of the space program: “If you ask me,” she says of the moon shot, “it’s the biggest chauvinistic exercise in the world,” to which her mom (Genevieve Mooy) retorts, “Well, that’s why nobody asks you.” As with that haunting momentary shot of the Airborne troops, the criticism embodied by Marie and Keith allows The Dish to scratch at the deep-rooted troubles of its chosen time. But rather than dig deeper, the movie’s response is more like, “Oh, nothing. Never mind.”

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