The 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing is one of those grand Historic Moments that make folks feel proud and nostalgic. The usual narrative goes like this: for that brief shining instant, everyone on the planet felt united and optimistic, represented in astronaut Neil Armstrong’s “one giant leap for mankind.” (That this narrative leaves out populations who had more immediate concerns, like eating, is one more example of the ways that history is written by winners.) The key element in this narrative—what let “everyone” feel so united—was television. Everyone who had a tv, apparently, watched the moonwalk.
Rob Sitch’s The Dish recalls that Historic Moment with mostly dry humor about the era and unfortunate dollops of sentimental sweetness. An audience favorite at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and the fifth-highest grossing film in the history of Australian movies, this good-natured comedy begins with a proven audience-pleaser, an elderly man, or actually, in this case, a youngish actor in heavy make-up, remembering his glory days (think: Saving Private Ryan or The Green Mile). As soon as you see Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill), in cardigan sweater with pipe a puffing, gazing pensively off-screen, you know that he has a tale to tell.
This tale, no surprise, involves the object of his reverent gaze, the very object that gives the film its name—a humungo, 1000-ton radio telescope the size of a football field. As Cliff contemplates it, so pretty and perfect, so white and vast, he puffs some more, then lapses into a kind of reverie, remembering that back in 1969, he was head-guy at the satellite dish operating station in the teeny Australian town of Parkes, New South Wales. For reasons not entirely clear, the mayor of Parkes (Roy Billing) had the extraordinary foresight to have the thing built, the largest receiving dish in the Southern Hemisphere, out in the middle of a sheep pasture.
Then came the lunar landing mission, and NASA asked Parkes to serve as backup for the station in Goldstone, California, which will send back tv pictures of the landing. This was a very big deal, no doubt. But the film takes a skewed view of the whole business, focusing less clearly on the historic particulars of the mission—the science, the technology, the nations working together—than on the apparently endlessly entertaining quirkiness of the Aussies. This isn’t to say that the movie ignores tensions in the mission. Stuff happens, of course: a generator goes out, contact with Apollo 11 is lost, high winds threaten to blow the dish off its stand, etc. There are even some initial turf conflicts between Cliff’s team and the sole NASA representative, Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton, “Puddy” on Seinfeld), which involve glaring and restive pacing. But then a visiting dignitary makes them realize that they are all on the same team, in that they must hide from the dignitary the fact that they’ve lost track of the space capsule. Nothing like a threat from the outside to make the inside look cozy.
That the dish station’s sense of one-for-allness is instigated by a need to deceive someone else is rather to the point, given that, according to the film’s version of history, most everyone involved in the moon landing was getting by—barely—with mistakes and anxieties popping up all around. But while NASA’s errors might result in a movie like Apollo 13, all drawn-out drama and angst, the Australian version is so very lighthearted and zany! The Dish is fond of its subjects, and doesn’t judge them for being silly. But it does show them being silly. See, for instance, the Parkes locals make the most of their moment in the world spotlight, dressing up in their finery to greet the Prime Minister (Bille Brown) and the United States Ambassador (John McMartin).
See them go about their daily business in subplots designed to showcase their zaniness. One such subplot involves an extremely tentative, too-cute-for-words courtship between the dish station’s numbers expert, Glenn (Tom Long) and lovely Janine (Eliza Szonert), the sister of the station’s zealous Ken doll security guard, Rudi (Tayler Kane). The subplot goes like this: Janine brings sandwiches in a basket each day, and Glenn fumbles with what to say. Contrast this bound-to-be-happy couple with the non-courtship between the mayor’s daughter Marie (Lenka Kripac) and her soldier-wannabe neighbor Keith (Matthew Moore). While he’s gung-ho, imagining that going to fight in Vietnam is a good idea (you know, to build character), she’s cultivating a newly awakened feminist sensibility, condemning the war and the Apollo mission as imperial-patriarchal-big-bully displays of power. On one hand, Marie serves to offset the rest of the film’s killer quaintness, but on the other, she’s repeatedly reduced to comic stridency, so that she’s as silly in her sulkiness as Keith is in his uniformed—and uninformed—strutting about.
Meanwhile, Marie’s parents are preening and primping, precise models for what these kids don’t want to be. Cliff comes by for dinner and observes the family dynamic, puffing his pipe and nodding politely. He’s the still, calm center in this storm of quirkiness. And for that, we’re grateful.