Dish, The

Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 11/27/00 13:33:08

2 stars (Pretty Bad)

The Castle was a slick piece of commercial film-making and was a big hit in Australia. The Dish is the second film from the Working Dog team (Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy and Rob Sitch), and it should appeal to international audiences as well.

The idea behind it is terrific. The television pictures of man's first steps on the moon on 21 July 1969 were relayed from the satellite dish in Parkes, New South Wales. The Dish gives an entirely Australian perspective on the moon landing by focusing on the small technical team at the station (led by Sam Neill) and their pride in taking a pivotal role in an historic moment. The story also encompasses some of the people of Parkes, including the Mayor (Roy Billings), and various visitors to the town - Al Burnett from NASA, who's working at the dish (Patrick Warburton), and Bille Brown as an acerbic Prime Minister Gorton.

What lets The Dish down and makes it a disappointment is the poor story telling. A good script is more than a great premise and some witty lines. This is a moment in Australian history that cries out for recounting, but it's a small moment, and it feels like it's been padded to feature-length. The padding needn't be fatal if it was diverting, but it's a string of tired cliches. The story is even told in flashback (with Sam Neill in aging makeup) for little purpose but to pass time.

The team of 20 or so workers at the dish is compressed into four desperately limited characters. From the moment Sam Neill's Cliff hesitates before affirming to a reporter that he's married, we know that his wife has recently died and that he hasn't gotten over it yet. Glenn (Tom Long, who's naivete is supposed to be charming, but renders him a wearisome halfwit) is too shy to ask out a pretty local (Eliza Szonert) who obviously has a crush on him. Need I say how that turns out? (I wanted to scream at Szonert, who brings freshness to her limited role, not to waste her time on him.) Which leaves Mitch (Kevin Harrington) and Al, who personify the contrasting Australian and American personality by bickering, until the inevitable crisis brings them together (you've seen these characters before too, most recently in The Perfect Storm).

The consolation in The Dish is the supporting cast, who supply local Australian "colour". Like The Castle, the characterisations and social satire are spot-on, though they seem more affectionate this time, so it's easier to laugh. Billings brings his superb comic timing to the role of the Mayor and steals the film. At times, the wit approaches Working Dog's razor-sharp satirical current affairs television show, Frontline. When Cliff and Al attend a celebratory lunch at the Mayor's house, the actors get a chance to sparkle, since their dialogue is (temporarily) not weighted down with profundities.

Among the humorous incidental characters are a bush poet (Colette Mann, making a brief appearance at the end) and school teacher (memorably despairing of all the show-and-tell projects involving rockets and space). The bush poet is funny because we don't have to imagine that she's a bush poet all day. The Mayor's daughter (Lenka Kripac), brimming with second-hand, anti-American political consciousness makes us laugh because she looks like she believes what she says. But the wannabe-soldier who's always in uniform to court her is a bum note. The daughter's conviction is what makes her funny, and it's something she carries with her. It stretches credulity to accept this man parading around town pretending to be something he's not.

My antagonism towards this film is possibly a reaction to the jingoistic (and knee-jerk) praise that's being heaped on it. The Dish itself is self-consciously jingoistic and twee. The characters endlessly stand around congratulating themselves on what a great moment they're part of and what a tremendous job they've done (with Edmund Choi's strident score in the background). The neat visual joke of the Australians playing cricket on the upside down dish is lingered on unnecessarily. These leaden touches distract from Sitch's direction. He has a good visual sense, and The Dish looks good on the big screen (thanks also to Graeme Wood's cinematography). It captures the excitement of the period by cleverly mixing period music and newsreel footage. All those scenes of people clustered around their television set - in classrooms and homes - must evoke nostalgia in people who remember 1969, and it may be enough to satisfy them. There certainly isn't any suspense, even when things threaten to go wrong (unlike, say, Apollo 13) because the characters have already congratulated themselves on what a good job they did.

Towards the very end, there's a slow-motion flashback of scenes from earlier in the film. Why do the film-makers insist on doing this (beyond padding out running time)? It's been less than an hour since we've seen and heard these moments a first time. Has television shortened our attention spans this much?

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