The Dish comes to us from the Australian filmmaking group that made The Castle, a splendidly silly film (and a huge hit down under). They’ve come a long way from that film’s bumptious, frowzy style; The Dish has a much more elegant look, and a mellow tone that feels as reassuring as lead actor Sam Neill’s cardigan sweaters and pipe. It even has a gooey framing device, with an aged Neill visiting the site of his glory thirty years after the fact—one of the periodic off-key notes in this otherwise nice movie.
Neill plays Cliff Buxton, the head man at a giant satellite dish located on a sheep farm outside the provincial town of Parkes. His moment of glory comes during a week in July 1969, when the first American moon landing brings the spotlight briefly to Parkes: the satellite dish is the only one of its kind capable of beaming back live TV pictures of the moonwalk. This is the kind of “footnote to history” that seems made for the movies, served up with more than a dollop of Aussie national pride.
True to its theme, the movie offers plenty of absurd irrelevance alongside the important issues of whether the dish will actually work or not at the moment of truth (power outages, a windstorm, computer glitches—there are plenty of monkey wrenches thrown into the path of our intrepid scientists). Cliff’s crew includes a lovesick Shrinking Violet and a pugnacious engineer, the latter with a chip on his shoulder about the imperious American organization man (Patrick Warburton) sitting in during the crucial week.
Warburton (last seen adopting a noir attitude in The Woman Chaser) is terrific, neatly balancing the casual America confidence (or arrogance) with an essentially nice-guy core. The movie is like this: it stirs up enough petty conflicts to divert us, but basically everybody’s all right, and eventually all the characters tap into the awesome wonder of just what it is they are doing. Neill, who plays the watchful/wise John Wayne role from Rio Bravo here, has the job of reminding all concerned about the galactic importance of their job.
There’s also lots of whimsy, of the familiar Aussie variety, with the dithery townsfolk. Director Rob Sitch has a droll way with throwaway gags, such as a local band that bursts into the theme from “Hawaii Five-O” when they mean to be playing the U.S. national anthem. I have to confess that this movie’s niceness ultimately made my skin crawl a little—when it’s this insistent, it’s a problem. And need I mention the numbingly persistent soundtrack of Sixties pop hits, nearly all of which are used in other movies? (There are thousands of good songs available for these purposes! Please, people, give the Top Forty a rest.) If it weren’t so pushy about selling itself, The Dish might have been a very special movie.