The Dish (2000)

D: Rob Sitch
S: Sam Neill, Kevin Harrington

Thoroughly inoffensive Australian film inspired by true events. During the moon landing of 1969, a remote Australian satellite dish was an important relay station for the all-important television pictures broadcast to the world. This film is a gentle portrayal of the atmosphere of laid-back hysteria which swept the tiny town where the dish was located. It speculates upon the technicians' responses to the minor crisis which occurred when they momentarily lost contact with Apollo 11. In a generic but very pleasant way, the entire incident turns out to be a life-affirming homage to the human spirit. Frank Capra would have been proud.

The Dish is a genuine rarity, a film for all the family which will not tax anyone's patience and does not rely on one section or the other to be tolerant. It is peopled with the kind of eccentric characters Australian films seem to thrive on which children will enjoy for their odd behaviours and the comic escapades the are involved in. Adults meanwhile will appreciate the subtle and extremely benign shading of these characters into more realistic, fully rounded personalities.

The story is extremely straightforward, involving no violence or anything much else in the way of physical action which might be deemed offensive or disturbing. It generates suspense and drama from character and situation without ever needing to pressure the audience into a response. The script, by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy, and director Rob Sitch, is careful and deliberately paced, building tension by introducing and developing likable, unassuming, and ordinary people and pitting them against a moment in human history of so great an import that it even touches the sleepy community in which the story is set. Sitch's direction is equally unobtrusive. The story seems to grow organically, bringing with it all of the themes and dramas which evolve from the premise.

The film is not entirely without teeth though. There is a reasonable level of satire worked through all of this down-home wholesomeness, including a degree of media criticism, a few jabs at social climbing and social status, and a couple of poignant character kinks which hint at genuine human needs and human tragedies underlying every event of what seems world-shaking significance. On the whole its focus is on the specific situation and the challenges faced by the technicians keeping the dish operational and in contact with the lunar mission. Head techie Sam Neill (Jurassic Park III) oversees the usual motley crew, including a well-meaning NASA advisor, a xenophobic Aussie assistant, a love-lorn youngster, and a dim security guard. The interplay between characters is usually warm and touching without being excessively saccharine, poking gentle fun at characters the script seems to genuinely hope you will care about.

It is the fact that you do care that makes it work. The portrayal of people and environment may tend towards the hackneyed, but it does seem heartfelt. It is difficult not to empathise with these individuals, and so when the troubles begin you have been hooked into their dilemmas. This is film school screenwriting 101 of course, but when you see it in operation in The Dish you begin to realise how few films do it these days. It is not that the film is of exceptional quality in itself, but it has qualities which many of its contemporaries lack that make it worthwhile.

It is possible that the film will not appeal to you. It is certainly not one for fans of the Con-Air/Armageddon school of cinema studies. It is occasionally so mild and so sleepy that it threatens to slip into a coma, with only choice one-liners and nice acting to keep you with it. There is a certain inevitability to everything that happens, and with a foregone conclusion, it is amazing (though explicable) that the film does generate as much suspense and tension as it does (the The Day of the Jackal effect is in play here). Those hoping for a spot of rowdy 'Ocker' comedy will also probably feel let down, but that is no harm. How many loud, beer-swilling obnoxious idiots can you possibly laugh at?

The Dish is probably likely to become something of a mug-of-tea-and-warm-slippers classic of the future. It is ideal winter evening's entertainment for those of a mind to appreciate its old-fashioned charms. It is deceptively well written, neatly performed, and has one or two genuinely big laughs. It will put a happy smile on your face even if you won't split your seams, with the overall result that, yes, you 'feel good': foregone conclusion, really.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.