' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: The Dish

Monday, July 20, 2009

My Great Movies: The Dish

Forty years ago today millions of people around the world gathered before their television sets to witness Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become the first two men to set foot on the moon. But then you knew that part. Did you know just how those grainy but breathtaking images were beamed to all those television sets? This is the story of Rob Stitch's wonderous Australian comedy "The Dish".

In the summer of 2001 I was still serving time in Phoenix. One Friday evening, after a particularly brutish day at the office, I staggered through the dry, god-awful desert heat of the Shea 14 Movie Theater parking lot in Scottsdale, desperate for a film to remedy my 109 degree induced depression. I noticed "The Dish" on the marquee. I didn't even know what it was or who made it but I knew it wasn't one of the overhyped Hollywood blockbusters of the season and so I bought a ticket for it. What followed was one of the most miraculous moviegoing experiences of my life. I ate the thing up with a childish grin on my face and when the hellish Arizona heat smacked me in the face upon exiting the theater two hours later my grin just got bigger.

With the Apollo 11 mission set to light out NASA enlists Parkes, Australia's Radio Telescope ("The Dish"), nestled right in the middle of a sheep paddock, a setting as quaint as the town itself, to track the spacecraft as it traverses the southern hemisphere. The images of the moonwalk itself will come from NASA's primary receiving station in California but merely to be a part of mankind's most daring endeavor is a victory for the townfolk, every last one of them bubbling not only over the lunar mission but over the impending arrival of the country's Prime Minister.

We quickly meet the four men who make the obsevatory hum. Cliff Buxton (Sam Neil) is the man in charge, calm, as steady as the pipe firmly planted in his hand at all times. Glenn (Tom Long) is intelligent but nervous, neurotic and forever fidgety. Mitch (Kevin Harrington) is quick with the quips. Al (Patrick Warburton) is the by-the-book, monotone NASA man who immediately clashes with Mitch.

Parkes' Mayor (Roy Billing), good natured, so sweet on his wife even though she often steals his thunder by finishing his sentences, prepares to greet not only the Prime Minister (Bille Brown, who is never given an actual name in the movie, a touch that feels spot-on after reading Bill Bryson's book "In A Sunburned Country" earlier this year about his journies to Australia in which he laments the fact he is forever forgetting the Prime Minister's name) but the American Ambassador (John McMartin). Rudi (Tayler Kane) is enlisted as The Dish's security guard, a job he is undoubtedly up for but maybe not cut out for, and his sister Janine (Eliza Szonert) stops by at all hours with food for the boys while pining for Glenn, not that he would ever do anything about it. (Hmmmm....am I a Cliff, an Al, a Mitch, or a Glenn? I can't decide.)

Straight away one can sense the film angling to show us the vast differences between the carefree Aussies and the buttoned-up American, yet it never pursues these developments as relentlessly as you might expect. It turns out "The Dish" is less about overcoming differences than it is simply about accepting those differences, realizing how much else we do have in common and getting on with it. Mitch and Al's manly tete-a-tete passes in the blink of an eye.

Consider the American Ambassador. What do you reckon? That he is a quintessential stateside lout, boorish and resistant to the offerings of the continent on which he finds himself? On the contrary, the Ambassador is portrayed, simply, as a genial guy. He is allowed to deliver one of the film's best lines, words that build from events constructed so perfectly to develop its cause that I can barely remember ever laughing so hard in a movie theater (or at home) when he says them.

Stitch allows room for everyone in the film to have a personality and at least a moment or two of honest-to-goodness humor. Kane's intrepid security guard goes a step further - he's funny every time he turns up, even if he's off camera or out of focus in the background ("nighty-night"). It is my favorite performance in a film loaded with terrific ones and exemplifies proper supporting work - he always stands out but never stands above, enhancing each scene he's in but never appropriating anyone else's moment. Most comedic American supporting actors should be so good.

Most importantly, the film is never condescending to any of its characters. They have quirks and faults, like we all do, but it never makes them stupid for the sake of telling a joke or advancing the plot. The movie loves the whole bunch of them and we do too.

It's why "The Dish" is not just a comedy but also a....(should I say it? Do I dare use that term? Oh, well, why not?)....a triumph of the human spirit. Yeah, you heard me. It is, as critic Lisa Schwarzbaum noted, "a comedy that rises out of elation, rather than mere wacky gas." It's about man walking on the moon, after all, our finest hour, perhaps our greatest accomplishment. It wasn't just Neil and Buzz's hour, though it was theirs most of all, it belonged to the whole world. In the 2007 documentary "In The Shadow Of The Moon" that recalled these events, Michael Collins, the astronaut who stayed behind to man the command module, noted how many people told him afterwards "We did it. Not 'You Americans did it', but we did it. Humankind, the human race, people, we did it." This film is an illustration of that sentiment. (Needless to say, I wasn't there and, in fairness, not everyone seems to have felt precisely this way.)

We do not really see the events of the moonwalk and NASA's endeavors and so forth, we see the people of Parkes watching the events. So often the movie is perfectly still as it contemplates the characters contemplating the astronauts, gathered around radios and TV sets for updates on the mission's progress.

But maybe more than anything the film captures the wonder, the stunning wonder, the disbelieving wonder, of this landmark event. A seat in parliament, the girl of your dreams agreeing to go out, the girl of your dreams simply forgoing the pleasure of telling you to bugger off for once in her life, a cyclone dropping out of nowhere at precisely the wrong time, partaking in a little cricket on top of a satellite, even "bullshitting NASA", all of it is not quite as astounding as the moment Tom Long as Glenn delivers a virtuoso line reading that must sum up just how every single citizen of the world felt as they watched the same image on the TV across from them at the same moment - "It's Armstrong....on the moon."

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