Dir: Rob Sitch. Australia. 2000. 104 mins.
Prod co: Working Dog. International sales: Working Dog Sales (61 3) 9826 4344. Exec prod: Michael Hirsh. Prod: Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy, Rob Sitch. Scr: Cilauro, Gleisner, Kennedy, Sitch. DoP: Graeme Wood. Prod des: Carrie Kennedy. Ed: Jill Bilcock. Mus: Edmund Choi, Jane Kennedy. Main cast: Sam Neill, Kevin Harrington, Tom Long, Patrick Warburton Genevieve Mooy. Tayler Kane, Bille Brown, Roy Billing.
A feel-good movie in the best sense of the term, The Dish puts an Australian spin on the "Houston, we have a problem" sub-genre typified by Ron Howard's Apollo 13. It made its world premiere at Toronto where it was a runner-up for the audience award. Careful positioning in the calendar and a gradual release built around word-of-mouth and the creative team's previous gem, The Castle, could make this gentle period production a solid box office performer if not a sleeper hit.
Based on actual events, the story tells of the Australian radio telescope technicians assigned the task of collecting the television images from the 1969 Apollo 11 mission along with Neil Armstrong's epochal sound-bite: "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Although lives are not at stake, the pride of the nation is: apparently, those signals - viewed by 600 million people - were very nearly lost.
Sitch and his Working Dog collaborators lovingly recreate the rural Australia of the era and populate it with an endearing gallery of characters, from the dish team's unflappable cardigan-sporting, pipe-puffing leader (Neill) to the mayor (Billing) who can't quite grasp the enormity of the situation but is determined to capitalise on his town's moment in the sun. Warburton, a regular on the US sitcom Seinfeld, is cast against type as the straight-laced NASA rep seconded to the station who must choose whether to tell his US masters the truth or protect his new colleagues' reputations. Needless to say, he has the right stuff.
Visually, the film has a rich, big-budget look while archival footage and newscasts from the mission rekindle the sense of wonder. Especially impressive is DoP Graeme Wood's success in making the huge dish a character in its own right, whether it's cradling the scientists as they stroll its vast basin or tilting in silhouette against the big Australian sky. The posters would do well to capitalise on it.