`The Dish' gets spirit of Apollo

Movie review

May 11, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Putting a man on the moon may have been the most wondrous event of the 20th century - a fact we tend to forget sometimes, given the rapid march of technology over the past two decades.

It's becoming harder and harder to amaze this computer-savvy world, where the impossible seems to happen almost daily. But back in 1969, when computers were still the size of a living room and PC was a meaningless acronym, the spectacle of watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon left a world holding its breath.

"The Dish" is an Australian film about some unlikely and unsung heroes of the mission. And if it's sometimes too quaint by half - Australia comes off as one big Mayberry, filled with stalwart, quirky characters - the film so completely transports audiences back 32 years that its unrelenting insistence on being charming is easily forgiven, if never quite forgotten.

Sam Neill is Cliff Buxtom, head of a three-person team in charge of a huge radio telescope stuck in the middle of New South Wales. Its size, scientific value and remote location make it a point of pride for the citizens of the town of Parkes. And when NASA, setting up a worldwide tracking system for its Apollo 11 moon-landing mission, asks that the Parkes dish be included (it's the largest radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere), the locals happily bask in the space agency's reflected glory.

Besides Buxtom, the Parkes team includes technician Ross "Mitch" Mitchell (Kevin Harrington), who's glad to help out, except when it means taking orders from the Yanks, and human computer Glenn Latham, who's better at working out calculations in his head than actually dealing with people.

These three characters are engaging enough to get the movie going, and there's no shortage of colorful locals to up the quirk quotient. That includes the flustered mayor (Roy Billing), unaccustomed to the spotlight, but more than willing to try it out; bumbling security guard Rudi (Tayler Kane as an Australian Barney Fife) and his sister, Janine, who has a thing for Glenn, even though he refuses to realize it; the clueless American ambassador (John McMartin) and the blustering Australian prime minister (Billie Brown), who came to town because that's where the news cameras are.

But the one character who really makes "The Dish" work is NASA representative Al Burnett, played by Patrick Warburton (Puddy from "Seinfeld"). Even though his voice and demeanor come across as condescending, much to Mitch's consternation, that's not his intention. He respects these people and enjoys working with them; his only concern is that their small part of the Apollo mission proceed without incident. Warburton is marvelous and effortlessly funny in the role.

The framework of this story is true. There really was (and is) such a dish in New South Wales, it did play a key role in the Apollo mission - a part that was much bigger than anyone initially expected - and the operating team did have to overcome some last-minute obstacles to make everything work.

But even more important than the facts, the spirit captured in "The Dish" is dead-on. Apollo 11 was one of those rare, non-wartime moments when the whole world's attention was riveted on one spot. It was a time in history eminently worth celebrating on film.

`The Dish'

Starring Sam Neill, Patrick Warburton, Kevin Harrington

Directed by Rob Sitch

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13 (Adult language)

Running time 104 minutes

Sun score * * * 1/2

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