Australians just want a little love and respect. The nation founded by people trying to steal your wallet now just wants to steal your heart.
If The Dish is any indication, some Aussies aren’t terribly happy that leathery old Paul Hogan is their banner-carrier to the rest of the world. They’d like us to remember there have been at least three or four moments in history when Australia was much more than a place to store your sheep.
One of those moments came in 1969, when a radio telescope in the middle of a sheep pasture in New South Wales was used to collect television signals from the Americans making the first moon landing. The slight story of those events is captured in this generically pleasant new film from director Rob Sitch, who does a fine job making his audience feel good … and who shows no ambition to do much else.
The Head Aussie In Charge is Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill), the laid-back, pipe-smoking boss at a telescope in the backwater town of Parkes. NASA wants to use the telescope as a backup to its big-ass scope in California, and the residents are awestruck by their role in everything. Needless to say, The Dish’s yokels would do Cicely, Alaska, proud in their iconoclastic individuality.
The telescope workers, who are watched bemusedly by a NASA observer wearing Clark Kent glasses (Patrick Warburton), deal with everything from high winds threatening to topple the telescope, to inter-telescopic love affairs, to rogue sheep who probably want to use the telescope for some Gary Larson-inspired zaniness. Will they play a critical role in the moon landing? Bet you know the answer already.
There’s nothing remotely offensive or aggressively dumb in this little nostalgia piece. Conflicts are kept to a minimum, the soundtrack is filled with cute ’60s pop, and everything builds to a big happy ending you can easily smell over the piles of sheep droppings.
There are plenty of messages … it’s good to be part of a team; culture clashes can be overcome with communication; even the littlest people can make a big difference. But Sitch, who made another transparent, slightly boring comedy called The Castle, is most concerned with creating a sense of abiding awe for the first tentative steps of space travel and the unabashed wonder of the first moon landing.
That’s easy to feel, even for people too young to remember it the first time. Using familiar old footage that still feels remarkably potent, The Dish recaptures that wonder splendidly. Many will feel a catch in their throat, even as they realize Sitch set them up for it.
Trouble is, The Dish does everything with no subtlety or cleverness. The film is unremittingly (albeit good-naturedly) manipulative and corny, with several characters taking a misty-eyed soliloquy on a variation of how great it is to be a part of these events. Neill is mellow, the townsfolk are quirky, Warburton is changed by their ways and everybody goes home happy.
It’s impossible to hate a film this straight-faced about its wholesome motives, but it’s definitely not impossible to be bored by it. The Dish competently tells a sweet story about nice people doing a wonderful thing. That doesn’t inherently make it worth watching, but if sugar is your main sustenance, you can get a big bowl of it in The Dish.
The Dish (PG-13) HH1/2 Directed by Rob Sitch. Starring Sam Neill, Patrick Warburton and Bille Brown.