It’s 1969 and Neil Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11 are about to land on the moon, and everyone in America is waiting with bated breath. What we didn’t know back then, and most of us still don’t know now, is that the fine folks in Parkes, a small rural town in Australia, were also waiting with bated breath. Movies like Rob Sitch’s The Dish, an Australian film with a mostly Australian cast, is a good reminder to Americans that the first lunar expedition in the history of mankind was not just an American endeavor, but one shared by the world.
The Dish stars Sam Neill as Cliff Buxton, an Australian in charge of the small team of technicians at the Parkes relay station that acts as the Southern Hemisphere’s only link to Apollo 11 during its mission. Along for the ride are fellow Aussies Mitch (Kevin Harrington) and Glenn (Tom Long), a nervous NASA advisor named Al (Patrick Warburton), and the good folks of Parkes, who are just giddy about being a part of history. Everything is going according to plan; all the important officials are coming to little ol Parkes to celebrate the moon landing, when disaster strikes. Not once, but twice. First is a power failure that wipes out every data in the computers, followed by an intense (and quite sudden) gust of wind that knocks the relay station for a loop and threatens to literally black out the Apollo mission. Can Cliff and his team brave through the unexpected mishaps or will they be left out of history?
Of course we all know that Parkes, Australia came online when it was supposed to and that everything went according to plan, or else there wouldn’t be any TV images of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. The movie chronicles the days leading up to the moon landing and the problems that arise, ending with the actual archived footage of the moon landing itself. There really is no surprise how things will turn out, so the task of co-writer/director Rob Sitch was to give us a town full of quirky individuals while going through the motions of the two separate crisis. The crisis themselves are very well-done and are intense and nerve wracking as the foursome stumbles and pulls at their hairs to fix the problems.
The Dish moves very well and much of the film is comedic and kind-hearted, with some laugh-out loud moments as when the school band mistakes the theme of the TV show “Hawaii 5-0” for the American national anthem. And there’s the character of Janine, who has less driving skills than the sheep that surrounds the Parkes relay station. In fact the whole concept (and reality) of a giant relay station, complete with giant satellite dish, built smack dab in the middle of sheep country is funny in and of itself. Apparently the location was chosen because Parkes is known for its stable weather condition, a belief that completely gets turned upside down just mere hours before Armstrong was to walk on the moon for the first time, and causes the relay station’s second crisis.
The movie relies on a very strong cast of Aussie actors, led by the always affable Sam Neill as the cool and confident Cliff. As Al, the lone NASA representative in Parkes, Warburton plays his part with a mixture of anxious nervousness and calm determination. He’s far from home, alone, and has the weight of the NASA program on his shoulders, and he’s feeling it. The Parkes townspeople are too numerous to mention, but all comes across as very likeable and appealing. A standout is the young boy who plays the Mayor’s son, who has every little official procedure to the lunar mission memorized. Director Sitch has a sure hand that doesn’t interfere with the going-ons in town or at the relay station, and the script has quite a few funny moments, sharp dialogue, and enough tender moments between the elder Cliff and his younger technicians to give the movie heart.
For Americans, The Dish is a chance to see how one part of the world reacted to the monumental event that took place in 1969, and for the Australians it’s a way of reasserting their important role in said event.
Rob Sitch (director)
CAST: Sam Neill …. Cliff Buxton
Kevin Harrington …. Ross ‘Mitch’ Mitchell
Tom Long …. Glenn Latham
Patrick Warburton …. Al