One small step

Mildly charming Dish a view from Down Under

No one makes fun of Australians like the Australians. Judging from their cinema, self-deprecation is part of the national character. Paul Hogan's Crocodile Dundee, back in theaters for a third time, embodies the Jeff Foxworthy definition of a redneck — "a glorious absence of sophistication" — and such films as Holy Smoke and Muriel's Wedding feature boorish families with bad taste.

Director Rob Sitch paid tribute to his homeland's tackiness with his comedy The Castle, but his latest film, The Dish, takes a different view of the country's rustic persona, which can manifest itself as an inferiority complex on a global stage. Revealing how a tiny Australian town made a significant contribution to the Apollo 11 moon landing, The Dish offers a charming reminiscence that can be thin as drama.

The town of Parkes isn't in the Outback, but it's definitely out of the way, with its only real claim to fame being how it's home to the Southern hemisphere's largest radio telescope. During the historic mission of Neil Armstrong and company, the Parkes' dish is the primary means of communicating with Apollo 11 when the moon's on the opposite side of the Earth from America.

The moon mission from Parkes' perspective may be a winning premise, but at times the film scarcely seems to have a plot. The four fellows running the telescope all have low-key character traits: avuncular Cliff (Sam Neill) grieves his dead wife, introspective Glenn (Tom Long) tries to muster the courage to ask out a local beauty, and obstreperous Mitch (Kevin Harrington) feels disrespected by NASA, in the person of the space program's American representative, by-the-book Al (Patrick Warburton).

The mission puts both the pride of Parkes and Australia itself at stake, and the town mayor (Roy Billing) is both delighted by the national attention and nervous over impending visits from an American ambassador and the Australian prime minister. Those stakes make The Dish unexpectedly compelling when things go wrong: A blackout causes the telescope to lose track of the spacecraft, and later, as the moonwalk approaches, gale force winds assail the dish. But the Australians would rather tough out the crises than admit, "Houston, we have a problem."

The time between the tense, high-tech moments are mild moments of comedy, but the film doesn't have as much delightful texture as a Local Hero. A band in Parkes welcomes the American ambassador not with our national anthem but a familiar TV theme song. A TV announcer holds up a tiny moon lander dwarfed by a model astronaut and cautions, "These are not to scale." Some of the best running gags come from the dish's over-excited security guard Rudi (Tayler Kane): In a night scene you hear him call, "Who goes there?" and a sheep bleats in reply.

And Sitch provides plenty of shots of the concave, bleached-white dish itself. The soundtrack plays "Classical Gas" in a sequence when the technicians start it up and adjust it, but it's not a fascinating sight in and of itself. But the dish does provide an incongruous location for a cup of tea or a game of cricket in a couple of scenes.

Ultimately you can't help but wonder if the story of the Parkes telescope would be better suited to a one-hour documentary — the film already relies on several montages of space program footage, not to mention the moon walk itself. Seeing the surviving participants could have been more intriguing than the re-creation of the film (which has a framing device of Sam Neill in old-age makeup). Still, it must be said that Warburton (Puddy on "Seinfeld"), wearing white button-down shirts, looks remarkably like the men in the NASA control room archival shots.

The Dish is most successful at evoking the excitement of people keeping track of the moon mission and, thanks in part to Parkes, watching it on television. The movie brings back the time when school kids knew the mission's every parameter and the whole world seemed united to share in a triumph for the human race, not just America's space race. The Dish makes a sharp but appropriate contrast to The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, explaining how "they also serve who only stand and wait."??