The Dish (PG-13)
The 1,000-ton radio telescope in Parkes, Australia that transmitted Neil Armstrong's historic first steps on the moon, in July 1969, is the leading character in writer/director Rob Stitch's The Dish. Except for the casting of Aussie leading-man Sam Neill (The Piano), The Dish plays like a government-sponsored propaganda film to increase nationalistic pride as it shows Australia as a provincial country that did something significant, once, for the rest of the world.
In contrasting the grand physical scale of the "dish" with far-reaching scientific human achievement, The Dish attempts a mix of soft comedy and feel-good drama and succeeds mildly at both. But does anyone really need to hear Good Morning Starshine ever again? The Dish layers on enough feel-good late '60s music to make you feel like you've eaten a whole box of crme-filled chocolates.
The film opens with a gray-haired old man walking down a quiet road in New South Wales to greet an old friend he hasn't seen in a very long while. The man is scientist Cliff Buxton (Neill), and the old friend is a giant white satellite dish that could just as easily have been one of Don Quixote's rival windmills. Cliff slips into a reverie that traces his time spent as the dish's leading crew member during four days of the Apollo 11 space mission. Cliff is an elder statesman, pipe-smoking father figure to dish crew members Mitch (Kevin Harrington), a temperamental technician, and Glen (Tom Long), a painfully shy calculations expert.
The crew is quickly joined by NASA representative Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton) when NASA asks the boys at Parkes to handle television transmission of Apollo 11 whenever the moon faces the southern hemisphere. Al is typically American as a condescending space expert who rubs against the local grain just enough to give the movie its primary character-induced conflict. But Al soon learns to tone down his condescension, and his opponent Mitch eats humble pie before any real sparks fly.
There are a couple of technical and natural intrusions to the crew's effective piloting of the satellite that intrude as necessary though banal obstacles. When 60 mph wind gusts threaten to uproot the dish at a critical moment when the team is due to transmit Armstrong's first step on the moon, the film hits its peak of drama.
Any hope that the story's kindly characters will achieve an intimately revealing moment is dashed as platitudinous scenes build up to the point that you become transfixed by tiny details like tie clasps or a clock hanging in the background. Even the film's singular turn at romance is squandered when Glen finally gets up the nerve to ask out Janine, a vivacious plum of a girl who can't keep her eyes off the geeky scientist. The couple are never shown together again and it leaves the audience to wonder why their subplot was scrapped. The tone of speculation offered is, quite naturally, that the two overly careful lovebirds fall hopelessly in love and live happily ever after with a couple of kids and a dog in the yard.
For as much screen-power as Sam Neill generates even when he's doing something mundane, like loading a pipe with tobacco, he's never given full protagonist credentials here. He waits his turn like a star basketball player who no one will pass the ball to.
After the murky black-and-white images of Neil Armstrong descending the stairs of Apollo 11 to set foot on the moon, there are plenty of handshakes and back pats celebrating a moment that people's entire lives and careers were built on -- one giant step for mankind and a small one for movie making.