In the aftermath of Oscar extravagance and the overpriced films they glorify, it’s refreshing to see a low-budget film with heart and an engaging story. “The Dish” is the kind of film that proves that a big film can be made on a small budget.
In this Australian film based on a true story, Sam Neill (“Bicentennial Man,” “Jurassic Park”) stars as Cliff Buxton, a recent widower and the director of operations of the largest radio antenna in the Southern Hemisphere in Parkes, Australia. Locals refer to the apparatus as “The Dish.”
In the story, set in the summer of 1969, just before the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, NASA requests the use of the antenna, sending the small town of Parkes abuzz. Though a humble town with little else to offer (the antenna is in the middle of a sheep paddock), Parkes is full of quirky, real characters.
Patrick Warburton (“Scream 3,” “Seinfeld”) is Al Burnett, the official sent by NASA to oversee the operation who is antagonized by Ross “Mitch” Mitchell, played by veteran Australian television actor Kevin Harrington.
The shy and bookish Glenn (Tom Long), the dish’s computer operator is bashfully courted by the town beauty Janine (Eliza Szonert). Myriad story lines and characters interact in ways typical of smaller films, but the writing is quick, witty and original.
Much of the film’s comedy stems from the culture clash of the Americans converging on the small town. At one point, when the local school band is instructed to welcome the U.S. ambassador (John McMartin) with the U.S. National Anthem, they mistakenly play the theme to “Hawaii Five-0.”
More than anything else, this film shows the excitement and awe of the first moon landing in a way that those of us who didn’t see it first hand can relate to. Stock footage of mission control and of the astronauts and their landing are mixed into the story at key points to make us feel as if we’re crowded up to the TV along with the rest of the anxious world. Even though some of the footage has been shown countless times over the years, the filmmakers manage to recreate the experience as if for the first time.
Director Rob Sitch chose many great songs that represented the optimism of the era. Songs such as “Good Morning Starshine,” “A Taste of Honey,” and “Magic Carpet Ride,” add to the feel-good quality of the film.
Though mostly lighthearted, this film has drama and some tense moments. Sam Neill’s performance is strong and understated. He shows the excitement and grandeur of being in the middle of the Apollo 11 mission, yet is melancholy because his wife is not there to share it. Technical glitches threaten the antenna throughout the film, which then threatens the attendant glory of the town.
This film is the kind of quality movie that ought to be made more often. It has strong, funny performances by an ensemble cast. The story is well told. The location is fun and adds to the story. Music and the original score support the key elements of the film. All in all, the film is a strong piece of art with intricate as well as simple themes.