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THE DISH - Review by Bill Nichols

Imagine my surprise when I popped into a Saturday afternoon matinee performance of THE DISH to find the theater almost full.  The sun was out, the air was warm, and here were a bevy of folks eager to see a light comedy from down under.  It may be a sign of how few films come out these days not targeted explicitly to those 14 and under.  By all accounts THE DISH delivered what its audience came for. 

Photograph from The DishWhat makes the film appealing is its off-hand acceptance of the ordinary.  People in the quaint little Australian town of Parkes go about their lives without protest or pretense.  Far from the world of A plus personalities--or slackers, for that matter--the townspeople mix decency with pride, professionalism with yearning in a thoroughly understated, unassuming manner.  It is a world as seemingly stable, and tight-laced, as the Victorian architecture of its main street buildings.  The dish is what makes a difference.  Parkes happens to have, thanks to its low-key but ambitious mayor, the most powerful radio telescope in the southern hemisphere.  And the dish has a stoic, reflective Sam Neil as leader with a slightly pugnacious, quick to take offense technician Mitch and an overly shy, but highly romantic computer expert Glenn as the crew.  Joined by straight-arrow NASA delegate Al these four men must provide the communications link between the NASA control center in Houston and the Apollo 11 mission to land the first man on the moon.

Photograph from The DishPersonality conflicts, particularly between Mitch, who searches for hints that Al might think the Australians are not up to the task, and a windstorm that threatens to blow the dish right off its foundation contribute the necessary suspense.  But this is not THE ABYSS or U-571.  Life and death questions of success or failure are in the air but like everything else, they are downplayed in favor of a tone of comic observation.  Sub-plots confirm the bemused tone: Glenn must decide how to ask the lovely and clearly infatuated Jeannine out on a date.  He’s sure she finds him boring and she’s just as sure he’s the one for her, if only he would say something.  Meanwhile an overly zealous young man with military ambitions practices his marching and saluting while trying to catch the eye of the mayor’s daughter.  She, however, is vehemently opposed to armies and wars, and sees the Apollo mission more as macho bravado than scientific adventure.  Her impulsive, angry denunciations send her mom into a tizzy but her dad the mayor doesn’t seem to notice. He’s too busy preparing for the visit of the Prime Minister and the American ambassador who sweep into Parkes to witness the moon landing. 

Photograph from The DishWhat THE DISH may be about more than space travel or small town life is the degree to which we live with an underlying sense of yearning.  This yearning for something intangible but transformative is what makes the inhabitants of Parkes so susceptible to the appeal of becoming part, even if as cogs, in such a grand, historic event as the first mission to the moon.  It is what the daughter resents, but her voice is shuttled to the sidelines.  THE DISH conveys the vicarious pleasure, and enhanced sense of dignity, that comes to those who give themselves over to the risks and rewards of a common mission, however suspect that mission might become if seen from a different perspective.  THE DISH now plays at the Nickelodeon Theaters.  Looking at movies that look at the world, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Bill Nichols.

c 2001 Bill Nichols