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:: Saturday, November 15, 2003 ::

The Dish





Last week's review features a link to group of Australians who are filming their own rocketship movie. Like you, I can't wait to see the finished work, but in the meantime, let's look at the other Australian rocketship movie.

The Dish is an unlikely candidate for a rocketship movie. There's no rocket day. The rocket is never shown, but only implied off screen and glimpsed briefly on television screens. The only bit of space hardware is a giant radio telescope stuck in the middle of a sheep paddock in a forgotten corner of the world. And yet, out of these poor prospects emerges an amazing and charming story about mankind traveling to the Moon.

The Dish tells the kinda-sorta true story about how the tiny town of Parkes, New South Wales played an important role in the Apollo project. Its radio telescope (the eponymous Dish) was the only instrument in the Southern Hemisphere capable of receiving and relaying the astronauts' signals from the Moon to humanity. And it almost didn't. How a plucky band of Australians (and a token American) managed to overcome obstacles and perform their mission -- sometimes in spite of themselves -- became the basis for a superb script and a marvelous movie.

Like another famous Australian movie, The Dish is a fish out of water movie. The formula is an evergreen: take one or more characters imbued with broad stereotypes and place them in an alien environment. Hilarity usually ensues. Mind, it's easy to get the recipe wrong: if either the heroes or the antagonists aren't portrayed sympathetically, the audience may mistake the movie for a smear job (e.g., Edward Scissorhands). Fortunately, this film avoids that obvious error and hides its jibes behind a great big goofy grin.

In a sense, every character in this film is a fish out of water. The token American NASA representative is out of his element in the outback. At the same time, the town of Parkes is unfamiliar with its new and crucial role as part of a major American Moon mission. Even you, dear non-Australian reader, may find the accents and slang odd to the ear. Thankfully, the DVD has got you covered.



(Note: I once watched an episode of Louis Rukeyser's Wall Street Week which featured a very outbacky Strine who did need to be subtitled. Too funny!)

And with that, let's look at the film:



The Dish is bracketed by a brief prologue and epilogue set in the present day in which the film's protagonist Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill, who as a Kiwi is also a fish out of water in this Australian film) travels to the Parkes Radio Observatory. The movie exists as a flashback in his mind. Therefore we can be kind to the script as it takes broad liberties with the true events that transpired there more than thirty years earlier.



To get the audience in a spacey mood, the film presents a musical montage of NASA stock film, from the early pad explosions to the successful completion of the Gemini flights. If you've seen The Right Stuff you've seen this material before. But take a moment to look at the above astronaut. He's a regular space cowboy. Would a ten gallon hat be out of place?



Meanwhile, back in Australia, everybody's excited about the upcoming Apollo 11 flight. Even the school kids are bringing lunar dioramas to show and tell. Here's one kid who's been watching too much Rocky Jones.

At the observatory, a reporter interviews the dish crew. It's a cheap and easy exposition dump. How to introduce the protagonists? Let them introduce themselves to the reporter.



Glen Latham's (Tom Long, center) the shy electrical engineer. Ross "Mitch" Mitchell (Kevin Harrington, below, left) is the dish operator. He's in charge of pointing the antenna and keeping the uninterruptible power source running (foreshadowing). He's also a bit of a cut-up, and he has a major chip on his shoulder when it comes to pushy, know-it-alls from NASA, such as Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton, right-offscreen).



As you can see, Al the token Yank is a cross between Buddy Holly and Clark Kent. He tends Kent-wise with his brusque, nervous demeanor. He represents the scope and power of NASA and the United States of America, contrasted against the threadbare but proud Australia. And the arc of his character illustrates a major theme of this film and a focus of the film's conflict.

As you know, the Apollo 11 mission succeeded. Nearly everybody who attended this film knew the basic facts. How were the writers able to establish dramatic tension in a story whose end was obvious? Wisely, they split the difference. Together the protagonists fought nature to bring the lunar signals to Earth. Simultaneously they fought each other: Yank versus Aussie in one of cinema's most endearing struggles.



At the outset, Al's an über-American. He's married with kids (as are none of the others). He's the sole remaining member of a team from NASA who sojourned from the colossus to a sheep paddock to upgrade and command Australia's largest radio telescope. He's quite a bit taller than his counterparts. And he's not at all pleased to learn that the plucky Australians have rewritten important passages from NASA's manual.



With the trans-Pacific relationship firmly off on the wrong foot, the Australians retreat to the surface of the dish for a game of cricket. Mitch vents his spleen to Cliff. But because Cliff's the senior scientist at the observatory, he tries to placate both sides, seemingly to no avail.




Meanwhile back in Parkes, the townspeople are pleased as punch to be part of the Moon mission. They gather around their screens to watch as Apollo 11 lifts off. And that's the closest this film gets to rocket day.

A minor nitpick: since all the really extraordinary events take place off screen, the only way we see them is through television screens. And through the reaction of folks watching TV. People staring at the magic box aren't particularly lively or even interesting. If I were making this film, I would curtail these scenes. Especially the ones with the little boy (Billy McIntyre, played by Carl Snell) who embodies baby-boom nostalgia.





By the way, Billy's also an expository device. If you don't know how rockets work (and neither does his Dad), Billy will explain it all for you. That's the other reason he's in the film.

The following day, pretty young Janine Kellerman (Eliza Szonert) arrives to deliver sandwiches and pies to the observatory crew.



Who is Janine? She’s sister to security chief (and comedic foil) Rudy Kellerman and a romantic interest to Glen. She’s holding a torch for Glen, and everyone but he knows about it. Oh, and brother Rudy’s holding a gun -- it’s an official NASA requirement (so he claims). Janine’s not particularly impressed.



While Janine distributes her consumables to the crew, Glen tries to explain what he and his friends are doing to support the Apollo mission. She’s all ears, and she’s giving Glen the right signals, but he’s all thumbs and left feet. It’s a painful scene better suited to a puberty comedy. We are grateful when Al cuts them off.



Glen sulks out to the dish, where he is comforted by Cliff. Cliff’s the moral center of this film. A tragic widower, he’s lived a full life and is full of wisdom. Each of the protagonists seeks his advice at one stage or another. Here, Glen wonders about his chances with the fair Janine. Cliff recommends to Glen a risk-taking strategy.



There it is: one of the film’s major themes -- sometimes you’ve got to take a risk. NASA risks the lives of its astronauts to reach the Moon. Australia risks its reputation on the dependability of its dish. The film’s protagonists risk national and personal pride as they strive to complete their mission. And who better to illustrate this theme than the film’s token Kiwi? Like his compatriot Sir Edmund Hillary, Cliff epitomizes the notion: “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Even contemporary NASA can take note: too much caution keeps you on the ground.

(And as an added aside, a note to a certain Democratic politician: if you’re going to talk the talk, you must eventually walk the walk.)

Speaking of taking risks, Al Burnett’s risking his career and national pride on his performance at Parkes.



Remember: Al’s one of a team of NASA scientists who upgraded the Parkes Observatory. Now he’s the only one on-site and responsible for its constant communication. Because the world will watch the moon-walk only if he completes his job correctly, he bears a heavy weight of responsibility. In a private moment, he unburdens himself to Cliff. Through this vignette, Al reveals himself to be less than an implacable edifice and more of a deer caught in the headlights. Were you in his position, how would you feel?



Al is holding on to tightly, and he's a bit overbearing. When he questions Mitch's math once too often, he provokes a fight. Chastened, he leaves the observatory to attend a reception for the American ambassador. Cliff tries to sort it out with Mitch, but Mitch is still sore about Americans.



Cliff tries to reason with Mitch, who at this point seems more French in his attitude than Australian. Frustrated, Cliff cuts him off and reminds Mitch he's part of something important and should act that way.



Rudy shows up with his gun to lighten the mood. As Cliff's wisdom hits home, Mitch reveals he isn't as anti-American as he used to be. It's hard to hate the Yanks when you're on the same team with them.



Speaking of Yanks, Al and the Ambassador attend a ball at the reception hall. A school teacher has commissioned a high-school band to play the American national anthem. The students have had only 48 hours to learn how to play it (hint: God Save the Queen), instead they improvise. They sound pretty catchy!

As the festivities stretch into the evening, the town places an ever greater strain on its power supply. Without warning the juice stops flowing, bringing the party to an end. Good thing Mitch has an uninterruptible power source hooked up to the dish.



Or rather he should have. The dish's computers are dead, and not even 1960's RAM can hold the current position of Apollo 11 without electricity. How will our heroes point the dish to pick up telemetry from the Columbia command module?



In fact, they cannot. Once power is restored, the protagonists have no idea where to start looking for he spacecraft. Houston Control notices Parkes is off-line and asks for a status check. Petrified, Cliff makes a command decision: lie. Stalling for time, he attributes the loss of signal to a relay failure. When Houston accepts the answer, Mitch realizes the Aussies have just BS'ed NASA!



Al arrives and asks for an update. He's horrified at the answer. Note how in the above frame, Al's on one side and the Australians are on the other. Teammates? Not right now they aren't. Al urges them to contact NASA with the truthful explanation. Cliff demurs, asking Al to play along until the four of them can recalculate Apollo's position. If only for the sake of his own neck, Al reluctantly agrees to play along.

Mitch actually takes a secret glee in what's happening. He's the one who loused up the UPS, and he's the reason they can't track Apollo 11. That means he's the center of attention. NASA's up a creek unless Mitch can find a way to get his dish pointed in the right direction. Feeling ever so important, he practically brags his failure to Al. When Al simply shrugs it off, Mitch looks like he's feeling a bit empty inside. The film is making a point here: schadenfreude, like French pride, is unfulfilling. Real pride comes only with accomplishment. If Mitch is willing to gloat over a failure, Al is unwilling to castigate and blame. Instead he urges Mitch to get back on the horse and get going, kinda like an American would do.

Next follows a musical montage of rocket scientists working out the math. These vignettes are so Eighties, and really don't belong in a sixties period piece. But this one has something you see in none of the others: a genuine slide rule!



As our heroes keep calculating, the film returns to the town of Parkes. Mayor Bob MacIntyre (who has his own story I'm omitting for the sake of brevity) is really excited about the days ahead. They're vindication for his long and difficult efforts to bring a large radio telescope to Parkes in the first place.



Here's Bob with his family. Young Billy's explaining what happened to all of the rocket's hydrogen (a running joke). Daughter Marie's (Lenka Kripac) sulking on the couch. She's going through her hippie phase and represents the film's token liberal. What does she think of rockets to the moon? Ask her yourself. Or don't: she thinks it's the biggest chauvinistic exercise in the history of the world. Typically liberal: wrong on every count.

What is Chauvinism anyway? Let's consult the encyclopedia:

Chauvinism is extreme and unreasoning partisanship on behalf of a group to which one belongs, especially when the partisanship includes malice and hatred towards a rival group.
(Wikipedia)


In this film, who personifies unreasoning partisanship? Marie, the anti-American. Who personifies malice and hatred toward a rival group? Marie, the man-hater. If anyone in this film is chauvinistic, it is she. Oh the irony! Enough about her.

I bet you're wondering how Bob MacIntyre -- the mayor of a one hoss shay -- got his government to build such a large radio telescope in his town. Don't look to this film for an answer, instead look to the internet. Here's my theory:

In the mid sixties, the American Arsenal of Democracy looked around the world for friendly places where they could build eavesdropping facilities. There's one at Fylingdales; there used to be one at Peshawar; and hey there's one in Alice Springs, Australia.

My guess is that during the construction of the Pine Gap facility, the Australian government reasoned that now would be the best time to commission a large radio telescope. After all, the contractors who specialize in that type of construction were already in the country, working on similar jobs for the National Reconnaissance Office. Getting the dish up and running was simply a matter of letting out a request for bids (RFB) and picking the right one. And there by the grace of the AoD is my guess at how the Parkes Observatory came to be. And now let's get back to the film.



As the team struggles to pinpoint Apollo 11, the American Ambassador drops by. If that weren't bad enough news, we learn that the fellow is an avid fan of NASA -- he's an expert at space stuff and won't be as easy to BS as was Houston Control. Cliff tries to conclude the meeting as quickly as possible, but the Ambassador wants to listen in on Armstrong. Cliff can either admit his failure or use telephones and walkie-talkies to fake the Ambassador out.



Cliff decides to go with plan B. Al and Mitch gin up some genuine sounding radio chatter. They even fool their own security guard. Rudy's on the same frequency, and he's pleased as punch to talk to the astronauts. Cliff cuts the channel before the game is up. The Ambassador leaves, satisfied. And we're glad to see the team back working together, even if they are only contriving their real jobs.



After the Ambassador leaves, Al has a flash of genius. Apollo 11 is only a day away from the Moon. Instead of calculating the spaceship's position, he suggests that Mitch point the dish at Luna and scan around.



And what do you know: it works! Now they can receive telemetry from Columbia and pass it along to Houston Control.

With the team reunified and reinvigorated with a sense of purpose, Mitch apologizes to Al. This takes quite a bit of courage, and Al responds warmly. We note that Mitch and Al aren't the same characters we first met. There's no longer a chip on Mitch's shoulder; he's firmly in league with the Americans. Al's no longer a pushy know-it-all; he's not omniscient and he candidly admits Americans sometimes fail. It's the response to failure that counts. And in the case of the dish, the team members are back in their saddles and ready for more action. Go you cowboys go!



And with that, it's Moon day!

There are several subplots taking place in town. I've omitted them for the sake of brevity, but they do require resolution before our heroes retreat to their dish and beam the Moon-walk to Earth. Mayor MacIntyre invites the dish-mates to lunch with his family.



Everybody's having a grand old time but Marie the hippy. She can't stand all this conspicuous consumption and smugness. With her sensitive conscience she tries to burst their bubbles. She even tries to smear Al with a CIA connection. Al certainly knows about Pine Gap, and he answers her question honestly and adroitly.

If you watch the film, you'll see it engenders sympathy for all of its eccentric characters -- all but the hippy comedic stooge. I like this movie.



Returning to the dish, Cliff and Al take a "hayride," as they step onto the lowered edge and ride it to the upright position. They chat about the upcoming Moon-walk and discuss the most important thing Armstrong and Aldrin need to do. This is a languid scene, and the viewer gets the sense that the characters are relaxing as their job draws to a close.



Here is where the film almost fails: before the Moon-walk there must be one final obstacle, one hurdle they must overcome before the film's climax. Another man-versus-man conflict would be redundant, so nature must intercede.



Although large, the dish is fairly light and flimsy. It's like a giant sail, and enough wind can tear it off its foundations. And sure enough it's getting really windy!



As instructed by his manual, Mitch bolts the dish in the full upright position. That's the safest aspect it can present to the gale. But the Moon isn't overhead -- rather it's near the horizon. To receive Apollo 11's signals, it must point as low as it can -- increasing the sail area it presents to the wind.

The decision to move the dish is up to Cliff. This is his dish and only he can decide whether to risk its destruction or play it safe. And since risk is one of the film's major themes, he orders the dish tilted to the Moon.



From this point to the end of the film, the dish strains and groans. It shudders every time a cog pops a few teeth. Our heroes risk their lives to aim the dish and relay Apollo 11's signals to the world. Humanity is blissfully unaware of the risks our heroes endure to play their part in the NASA team.




And here are a few small slices of humanity watching something wonderful on their televisions.

[Note: there are far too many scenes of people staring at their screens. We get the picture already.]



As the Eagle approaches the lunar surface, Cliff and his team listen to the unexpurgated telemetry. And because they're working for NASA they actually understand what's going on. They even note when Armstrong nearly aborts the landing. For an outcome we already know, the film does a decent job of raising the tension.



The remainder of the film is strictly for rocket buffs and folks with nostalgia for the sixties. Count me with the former. There's another musical montage of Moon-walking and crowds all over the Earth looking at TV screens. I suppose it's forgivable: that they can watch live television from the Moon is possible only because of the efforts of our heroes (and the crews of other telescopes). The montage ends as the astronauts climb back into the LEM and depart for Earth.



After the Parkes crew congratulate themselves on a job well done, the body of the film is over. We return to the present day, where an older Cliff concludes his reverie and contemplates the old dish.



As he turns his back, the music swells. It's almost the end, but before the main credits roll we read:





Good job Parkes! The end.

The Dish is the kind of film I wish Americans still made. It's a small slice of a grand story. For a low-budgeted fish-out-of-water comedy, it has a huge scope and is full of loveable characters. And the main characters change as they pass through the story -- particularly Mitch and Al. It's got two main conflicts, both resolved successfully. It's got just enough romance and a generous serving of hippy-bashing. What's not to like?

I'm especially impressed at the way the film cleaves together the clash of cultures and the theme of teamwork. When the Americans and Australians are at odds, nothing gets done. Only by taking risks together do they reach success. In the contemporary world, where the risk of terrorist attack is at its highest and must be confronted together, I can think of quite a few places where this film ought to get a second screening.

For the film's flaws, we should start with the story. It's not exactly true. There is a Parkes Radio Telescope and it did relay the Apollo 11 signals to NASA. It did suffer through a windstorm. But it wasn't the only dish. And it didn't suffer a power failure. These last facts undermine the film. The film's most important conflict is the battle of wills between Mitch and Al, and between Parkes and NASA (even if NASA is unaware). I'm a tad crestfallen to learn that these are contrived embellishments to the true story. Of course The Dish is fiction, and we accept it as a tale based around true events. The invented material is spot-on and really makes the movie worthwhile.

Another flaw perhaps: this film is a tear-jerker. It dares you to keep dry eyes. Not tears of tragedy, but of gratitude. Americans walking on the Moon, for goodness sake! You try and hold back. It's probably for the best that you can watch it on DVD. Ever since I went to see The Joy Luck Club, I've stayed away from the tear-jerkers. Who wants to sit in a theater where everybody is blubbering down their sleeves?

For me, the faults are inconsequential. The film appears at first inauspicious and ends with a grand flourish. If you're sad, this one will cheer you right up, and remind you that Americans traveled to the Moon (with a little help from Down Under). I'm personally granting every Australian the honor of being an unofficial American, and I'm awarding this film:

Two Ears Up!

:: Anna 2:33 PM [+] ::
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