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The Dish (2000)
Director: Rob Sitch
review by Steven Hampton
This retells the story of Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 Moon landing, of July 1969, as seen through the eyes of civilians in the Australian community of Parkes, where a large radio telescope was a vital part of NASA's plan to make their space mission the first global television event...
Antipodean comedy drama about such a momentous human endeavour does sound terrible, doesn't it? But, against all the odds, this turns out to be a warmly engaging tale of ordinary folk peripherally involved in, or reacting to, televised history in the making. Pipe-smoking Cliff (Sam Neill) is the quietly spoken boss at the Parkes tracking dish, incongruously located at the heart of sheep farming countryside, and he's persuasively enthusiastic about his station's participation in this grandly ambitious scheme. Coping admirably with visiting dignitaries, public relations troubles between acerbic engineers and tactless reporters, and the stiffly conservative official liaison from NASA, our laidback Aussie tech-heads enjoy the odd game of cricket inside the giant metal antenna. Most importantly, though, they try not to "stuff it up" when it's their turn in the limelight, to relay telemetry and communications between the astronauts and cap-com in Houston.
When things do go wrong (as we realise they must, or there would be no drama here), and a power outage results in loss of all computer data on the spacecraft's location, Cliff and his team must bluff their way out of an embarrassing situation. Not wanting to disappoint their American colleagues while the world is watching, Cliff and the staff at Parkes must find a way to relocate distant Apollo in that vast southern sky and reacquire signals from the astronauts, or risk losing their role in this great venture.
Unlike The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, and other similarly extravagant docudramas revisiting NASA's glory days, The Dish is a markedly unpretentious film without any of the aerial vistas and spectacular visual effects usually associated with space movies. However, there's still an element of affecting romanticism about the high adventure which the team at the Parkes dish are contributing to, and it's this that is at the centre of the script's richly humorous social commentary. As local people have their minds thoroughly boggled by Parkes' connection to pioneering events, and the national media attention the dish attracts, several everyday relationships wither and bloom in the course of daily life, and the little town's preparations for a stopover by the Australian Prime Minister. Rob Sitch avoids both mawkish self-congratulatory backslapping and postmodern cynicism, and creates an absorbing piece of cinema to explore ironic yet likeable characters - while also successfully celebrating the staggering achievements of the space race era.
The wealth of extras on this disc, make it an essential purchase for anyone interested in NASA and the Apollo space programme. There's over 70 minutes of archive footage (shot by NASA at a cost of billions, so it counts as by far the most expensive documentary of all time!), a UK exclusive interview with Sam Neill, behind-the-scenes featurette, an Apollo 11 diary, manned space flight chronology, storyboards, trailers, TV ads, director's commentary, production commentary, cast and crew biographies, standard menus and chaptering.
previously published in VideoVista #33
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