' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...The Dish

Friday, July 19, 2019

Some Drivel On...The Dish

Last year a mini-brou-ha-ha erupted after Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong character study “First Man” scrubbed showing him planting the American flag during the 1969 moon landing. But at the beginning of this year’s BBC podcast “13 Minutes to the Moon”, Michael Collins, something of an expert on the lunar mission, stated he never understood why their achievement was swaddled in so much nationalism, explaining that on his and Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s worldwide tour afterwards everyone forewent saying you did it, opting for “we did it” instead. That global spirit is evoked in Rob Sitch’s comedy “The Dish” (2000), a personal favorite since the day it brightened my mood on a particularly scorching, miserable summer day when I lived in Phoenix, recounting the role Parkes, Australia’s observatory radio telescope played in Apollo 11 communication and transmitting its lunar images to TV. Granted, the film’s jokes skew as predictable as the era-appropriate soundtrack, but there is still an overriding sunny air that sticks with you, scenes frequently opting out of a comical capper for a cheery one. Indeed, if liberties are taken to enhance the drama, “The Dish” remains earnest, never artifical, the climactic moment of getting the satellite into position no different than the age-old notion of getting up the courage to ask someone out.

Both the worldwide spirit and the script’s commitment to hoary chestnuts are made plain in the quartet manning the observatory: solemn but warm Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill), anxious yet intelligent Glenn (Tom Long), boffo Mitch (Kevin Harrington), and the stiff-necked man from NASA, Al (Patrick Warburton). In their obvious dueling airs, the last two butt heads immediately, though rather than drawing this out to interminable lengths, Sitch moves it aside early when they both buck up and make nice, a demonstration of “The Dish’s” charity. This accord happens after Cliff rightly calls Mitch out, perhaps “The Dish’s” high point. “We are in the middle of the greatest feat ever attempted,” Cliff declares as the camera cuts to a momentous-underlining close-up. “And what are you doing? Standing around bitching.” It moved me then; it takes my breath away now, a prescient rebuke of our anti-everything present.

That scene epitomizes Neill’s performance, his voice rising only when necessary, otherwise not so much fading into the background as existing like the warm glue binding not just the team but all of Parkes together. That includes the Mayor (Roy Billing) who doesn’t bristle when his assistant hints at his boss’s political grandstanding but expresses honest shock. And even if the Prime Minister’s (Bille Brown) eventual arrival in Parkes underlines the toll politics can take, “The Dish” prefers the Mayor’s optimism, perhaps even to its Pollyannish detriment. This is a movie, after all, where a teenage band practicing for the ball to honor the American ambassador gets the plug pulled after a few bars of “Purple Haze” by some reactionary. The closest the “The Dish” gets to dissent is the Mayor’s daughter, Marie (Lenka Kripac), who has a Jimi Hendrix poster tacked to her bedroom wall and views the moon mission more as an exercise in government-funded egotism. This, alas, is played for amusement, merely a pesky teenager who Thinks Too Much About Things, an unfortunate misstep, meanness that doesn’t seem to know it’s mean in an otherwise compassionate movie, where even the détente she reaches with Al at the end of a Sunday roast is more about humoring her than taking her seriously.

Then again, a mid-movie montage is scored to The Youngbloods’ famed hippie anthem “Get Together”, including a scene at church, suggesting a kind of cosmic middle ground for the traditionalists and the free spirits, furthered in the predictable if still sweet moment where Marie lets the aspirant soldier next door watch the moon landing with her. And the ultimate drama of the landing stems from wondering whether Parkes will simply be able to fulfill its role, which is where a sense of local and national pride emerges, though that manifests itself less as drum-beating than simply overcoming fears of, in Cliff’s words, “stuffing it up.” And that fear is what makes the film’s biggest narrative stretch, in which Parkes briefly loses the Apollo 11 signal and lies about it, ring true anyway. Al reluctantly goes in for the ruse that arises to fool the American Ambassador (John McMartin), though, thankfully, the American Ambassador is not portrayed as a fool. He’s not portrayed as arrogant either, two stereotypes dispensed. When the teenage band at the ball mixes up the United States’ National Anthem, in fact, he hardly minds. Ah, if all Americans could be so chill.

No, Australians and Americans are on equal footing here, not because they are told to be but because the event around which they coalesce lifts them up, emblemized in how frequently the movie is just about settling down to watch people watch the moon landing television coverage, reveling in the awe and elation on their faces.

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