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The Dish

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: The Dish

Starring: Sam Neill, Patrick Warburton
Director: Rob Sitch
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 104 Minutes
Release Date: April 2001
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Kevin Harrington, Bille Brown, Roy Billing, John McMartin, Jane Menelaus, Taylor Kane, Eliza Szonert, Carl Snell

Review by Steve Rhodes
3½ stars out of 4

Three senior members of the Australian Department of Radio Physics, Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill), Ross 'Mitch' Mitchell (Kevin Harrington) and Glenn Latham (Tom Long), and their NASA associate, Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton), have a problem on their hands. Their 210-foot, 1,000-ton dish -- a hunk of metal set in the middle of nowhere in an Australian sheep paddock near the town of Parkes, Australia -- has lost Apollo 11. It's 1969, and it's their responsibility to transmit the television signals of the moon walk to the rest of the world. It's an awesome responsibility for these 4 blokes, but in this heartwarming film, these guys are up for their mission. The first of their problems is caused by a brief power outage, but in a cute and imaginative illustration of the fundamental difference between mathematics and engineering, these slide rule jockeys figure a way out of their predicament and locate the "lost" spacecraft.

This ground level view of space exploration is actually based on a true story. Rob Sitch, the director and co-writer of the marvelously offbeat Australian comedy THE CASTLE, brings together his writing team from THE CASTLE (Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Jane Kennedy), and the surprise is that they are as good with THE DISH's light comedy as they were with THE CASTLE's over-the-top brand of humor. Although there are plenty of laughs in THE DISH, it is the amazing but simple story of dedication that remains in your memory after you leave the theater.

Making extensive use of archival footage and audio clips, the movie does a masterful job of transporting us back in time. Graeme Wood's warm cinematography has the saturated colors of a 1960s TV set. The musical choices are an evocative choice of memorable old pop tunes and moving dramatic pieces. In short, this is a movie that really knows how to set the mood.

The writers provide rich stories and back stories for a large number of characters. We get to know everyone from the townsfolk to the Prime Minister. The best defined is Cliff Buxton, the pipe smoking "dish master," who looks and acts like a revered college professor. Cliff's wife died a year ago, and he still bears the scars of her death.

The residents of Parkes are a hoot. They wonder what the astronauts do when they need to do "number 2." Can't hold it for 4 days, they figure. "I reckon, they oughta try one of these," one guy says, pointing to a local "delicacy." "Block 'em up for a week."

Most of the time, the dish is a hotbed of inactivity as the scientists inside wait for the earth to rotate. (The dish shares prime tracking responsibility with a dish in California, which follows the capsule when it is on California's side of the globe.) But when disaster strikes, the magic of science comes through as these engineers work through the night with blackboard and chalk as their prime tools. The wonderment of scientific endeavor hasn't been so well displayed since OCTOBER SKY.

When most people think of space command and control, they think of NASA, in which thousands of scientists toiled away for years. What is remarkable about this story is that without these four unsung heroes, July 20, 1969 would have lost most of its impact. Without live pictures, the moonwalk would not have been nearly so dramatic or memorable.

But this is a sweetly humorous, not a somberly serious, movie. The dish's clueless guard, Rudi Kellerman (Tayler Kane), maintains the world's loosest security, but he tries to do his best. "Halt! Who goes there?" he demands sternly one dark night when he detects a breach of the compound area. "Baaaa," the intruder replies.

THE DISH runs a fast 1:40. The film is incorrectly rated PG-13 for brief strong language. I listened hard and don't remember any profanities. The film would clearly be acceptable for all ages, but younger children will likely get fidgety.

Copyright 2001 Steve Rhodes

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