When Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill), the director at an Australian radio telescope that becomes an integral part of NASA’s Apollo 11 moon mission, remarks on the significance of the effort to have man walk on the lunar surface, he quotes his late wife as saying that the idea “makes the spirit soar.” “The Dish,” a nostalgia-laden recreation of the Aussie role in the venture, uses every cinematic trick in the book to have the same effect on the audience: shot in burnished, glowing tones and concentrating on the eccentricities of lovably quirky locals and good-natured American visitors, the picture is unremittingly manipulative and even corny, but carried off so expertly that it’s likely to be a real crowd-pleaser nonetheless.
The picture comes from the same team that gave us 1997’s “The Castle,” about an oddball Melbourne family that goes to court to prevent the construction of an new airport runway that threatens their home. Like the earlier film, “The Dish” is reminiscent of the old Ealing comedies that regularly centered on some group banding together to reach a common goal, very often in the face of major opposition. But while “The Castle” had an underlying tartness, the new picture is far sweeter and less cutting. There are digs at the expense of a few characters, but even they’re delivered very gently; some of the figures on display here may occasionally be a trifle dense or misguided, but ultimately everybody is portrayed as good-natured and well-intentioned. And, of course, when the inevitable last-minute obstacle (a windstorm which threatens to keep the telescope from being shifted into proper position to catch the transmissions from the moon and pass them on to an expectant public) is overcome and the moment of triumph arrives, all celebrate in a “We Are the World,” hands-across-the-Pacific kind of finale.
The linchpin here is Neill, who provides the cozy center around which everyone else revolves. Dressed perpetually in comfortable cardigans, toying thoughtfully with his ever-present pipe, and always slightly mournful (as befits a husband who’s recently lost his beloved spouse), Neill’s Buxton is a constant figure of calm, peace-making professionalism and competence; it’s an appropriately understated turn that anchors the picture well. His underlings are Glenn (Tom Long), a charmingly geeky math expert who’s smitten with but tongue-tied around beautiful blonde Janine (Eliza Szonert)–will he ever work up the courage to ask her for a date?–and bluff Mitch (Kevin Harrington), upset with the intervention of officious NASA representative Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton). Beyond this inner circle are anxious, proud Mayor Bob McIntyre (Roy Billing), soon to become an MP, and the visiting U.S. ambassador (John McMartin), a space buff–as well as McIntyre’s sullen, outspoken daughter Marie (Lenka Kripac), his mission-obsessed son Billy (Carl Snell) and ever-supportive wife May (Genevieve Mooy), and a charmingly inept security guard (Taylor Kane). The common thing about all these figures is that they’re fundamentally a lovable lot. To be sure, one or another of them might be momentarily irksome or antagonistic, but those negative qualities always dissipate in the face of challenge–Burnett, for instance, courageously conspires with the Aussies when their participation in the mission is threatened by Mitch’s mistake (predictably, Mitch will apologize profusely afterward for having thought Al a stick), and Marie scoffs at the entire project, only to soften when flattered by the Americans (how easily is youthful cynicism disarmed). Ultimately there’s nobody in the vicinity who’s even vaguely villainous, whatever their foibles; indeed, everybody’s so damned nice that it’s positively refreshing when the Prime Minister (Bille Brown) turns out to be a sharp, slightly contemptuous chap. (Perhaps because of that, his participation is kept to a minimum.)
In many respects “The Dish” recaptures a good deal of the old-fashioned optimism and autumnal reverie that marked Joe Johnston’s “October Sky,” the resolutely uplifting 1999 film about a bunch of rocket-obsessed teens in 1957 West Virginia; it boasts a heavier dose of good-natured humor than that film possessed, but the overall effect is similar. “Sky,” it must be recalled, proved a box-office disappointment, but if word of mouth is given time to circulate, this flick could fare better. “The Castle” was funnier, though.