The Dish

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The Dish

Few events in modern human history have held more intrinsic drama and uplift than the Apollo 11 moon landing in the summer of 1969, when even an America deeply divided by war and social change could pause to consider the transcendent. Shots of Neil Armstrong's first steps are often used in films as a cheap period signifier, but addressing the mission directly would seem to call for a certain amount of restraint, lest the audience get washed away in a tidal wave of cloying sentiment. But leave it to the Australian team behind The Castle—a dire low-budget comedy that plays like a John Waters film hijacked by a cut-rate Frank Capra—to go in the exact opposite direction. In telling the fact-based story of an obscure town in New South Wales that captured audiovisual transmissions from Apollo, The Dish lays it on thicker than Sam Neill's old-age makeup. At least a dozen quirky eccentrics get their own cute subplots, two of them about doe-eyed puppy love, and no look of hushed awe is allowed to slip past unaccompanied by angelic choirs and synthetic sprinkles on the soundtrack. The Dish opens, for nostalgia's sake, in the present day, as the gray-haired Neill reflects on his days as the head scientist manning the southern hemisphere's largest radio telescope, which juts out amid the sheep paddocks outside the city of Parkes. In conjunction with a California telescope, Neill and his small team of technicians are responsible for tracking Apollo 11 to the moon and back, relaying sound and pictures from the ship to the rest of the world. The sudden notoriety throws their sleepy town into a frenzy of activity, as the opportunistic mayor (Roy Billing) fetes the visiting U.S. ambassador (John McMartin) and the Australian prime minister (Bille Brown). But when a power outage throws the telescope offline, the scientists must relocate Apollo's signal in time for the landing, or else disgrace the entire city. No prizes for guessing how it turns out, but little else in The Dish isn't just as predictable. Some funny moments and a handful of colorful turns, particularly Patrick Warburton's by-the-book NASA consultant in thick Clark Kent glasses, keep the slick manipulation at bay. But when man finally walks on Mars, here's hoping the mission is tracked by countries like Taiwan or Iran, where filmmakers are more conversant with understatement.