When Americans make films about the Space Race, you can expect challenges along the way along with a star spangled banner effort at the end that will tug at the heartstrings and make Americans feel proud. Nothing wrong with that. Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff artistically chronicles the early days of the Mercury program with humor and humanity, reminding us that astronauts are neither machines nor monkeys.
Kaufman's film fleetingly reminds us of the collaborative efforts of other countries with a significant scene in the outback of western Australia where Cooper heads to a satellite station to communicate with John Glenn as he orbits the Earth. While included for metaphorical purposes to mystically connect an aborigine shaman with Glenn's experience, Australia does receives a brief acknowledgement when Cooper tells Glenn that Perth has lit their city lights for him. Still the focus of the Space Race in American cinema has remained firmly entrenched in the U.S.
Finally, we have another perspective. Australian director Rob Sitch gives us a unique viewpoint of the famous Apollo 11 mission in The Dish, a true story centering on the giant CSIRO Radio Telescope located west of Sydney in the New South Wales region of Australia. While the nearby town of Parkes began as a pastoral and mining community, construction on the telescope began in the middle of a sheep paddock in 1959 and put Parkes on the world map on July 20, 1969. With wider screenings The Dish will promote this historic spot even more.
Lest you think this sounds like suitable material for the Discovery Channel, check out this well-constructed historical drama at your local theater. Full of dry Australian humor, The Dish is one of the most enjoyable films of 2001. Certainly a great deal of research went into the film, but technical details are presented in a palatable way by very human scientists, led by supervisor Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill, of Jurassic Park fame).
The Dish opens with a framing device. Buxton re-visits his old stomping grounds at the satellite dish before flashing back to July of 1969 when he learns that their station has been selected to serve as the Southern hemisphere backup station for the Apollo 11 mission. That means that they may provide the television signal to an audience of over 600 million people who will be glued to their sets to watch Neil Armstrong become the first man to walk on the moon.
Buxton serves as peacemaker to his crew of scientists that includes uptight technician Mitch (Kevin Harrington), geeky and shy numbers man Glenn (Tom Long), and the dark suited and initially ultra formal American NASA agent Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton). Glenn begins as the most likable of this crew: he continually translates the Aussie vocabulary into American terminology for Burnett, quietly translates the NASA mathematical figures into compatible Southern hemisphere figures (NASA had overlooked this), and worries about whether the security guard's sister would go out on a date with him.
The ugly American scientist will eventually loosen up on a number of fronts and become more likable as he grows to understand Buxom and the people of Parkes. For a tiny place like this (imagine the security guard calling out in the night for an intruder, only to be answered with a sheepish “baaaaaaaaaa”) to potentially televise one of the great moments of human history to the entire Earth is one huge deal. The American ambassador will make an unwanted appearance at the station, in the midst of some technical difficulties that Buxton want so temporarily cover up. He realizes that admitting a mistake to Houston would be giving them an excuse to think that the Australian contingent are either dickheads or incompetent country bumpkins, so it's gratifying to see the American NASA agent go along with the cover up.
Of course NASA representative Burnett later reminds Buxton about the standard panic mode of operation at Houston and how NASA was continuing to have unexplained failures even up the the Apollo 11 launch, a story which serves to bring the U.S. and Australian teams closer together.
Those who remember the specifics of that historic July 20 date will remember that the Australian station actually does become the satellite provider for Armstrong's historic “giant leap for mankind” when the crew bumps up its schedule. Naturally there must be some dramatic challenges and difficulties along the way, but the screenwriter doesn’t need to make up a fictional account here. At that time the Australian crew had to battle a 60 mph windstorm as they transmitted those indelible images from the moon. The film allows us to re-live the historic moment through archival footage. Not only do we see some clips of those first few steps on the moon, but we see reaction shots of various Australians who are mesmerized by the images on television, and remember. Those incredible shots will invariably cause some dampening around the eyes for this "feel good" movie.
Don't let fears of sentimentality chase you off from seeing The Dish. There are many reasons to check out this film, and the time will fly by as you are transported back in time through many musical period pieces from Mason Williams' "Classical Gas" as the satellite moves to the dance scene done to the Tijuana Brass. Additionally, the comic relief is so abundant that you will think that you are seeing a comedy; at least if you appreciate the dry humor of the Aussies. After all, not every satellite dish on Earth has people play a little game of cricket on top of it.
Sam Neil has never done better work, and much of his understated acting is accomplished through the eyes. Instead of escaping a CGI generated T-Rex or managing children this time, he controls his own emotional loss and acts as a mentor and equal partner to his colleagues. Credit the screenwriter and director for making the whole project work with some nifty editing and using a script that moves despite not have a lot of really dramatic action to it. The tightly scripted plot even connects Glenn's nervous but touching scene where he risks asking Janine (Eliza Szonert) for a date with the final weather crisis that must be met.
Though it is far more lighthearted than The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, The Dish completes a trilogy of sorts about the Space Race and illuminates one of the “small” footnotes in history that most Americans have never considered. Not so much because Americans are just ungrateful snobs; it's just a story that has been overlooked by the media.
No longer. This is a story that all the world’s citizens will enjoy, as it really goes along with NASA’s underlying unifying mission that has been captured in the famous picture of Earth as seen from the moon. In the end we are all part of planet Earth, and Sitch’s film reminds us without preaching.