For months, NASA officials had planned to beam video from Apollo 11 as it rounded the earth's Southern hemisphere. But on the eve of the moonwalk, NASA scientists realized that the Australian dish was the only one on this planet capable of broadcasting the live images of the first steps on the moon. If there were a screw-up, the whole world would -- or wouldn't -- see it. Australian pride would get an enormous black eye.
Kevin Harrington plays the grim, efficient and seemingly humorless NASA engineer sent over as liason between Houston and Australia. His vigilance and second-guessing ruffle the fierce pride of the Aussies, including Cliff (Sam Neill), the gentle, quirky scientist who runs the satellite station. Along with the rest of Australia -- particularly the tiny town of Parkes -- he sees this involvement in the moon landing as a historic justification for science in general, and Australian science in particular.
Resentment at the powerful Americans jousts with a touching desire to be part of something big, and to perform creditably. There's also a great sense of wonder -- easy to forget in the midst of the computer revolution -- about the moon expedition and its meaning to a transfixed world. Every scientist wanted a piece of it.
Although the movie is about a scientific achievement, it is a very funny, human story, skillfully capturing the humor, informality and individuality for which Australians are famous. The nerds at the Australian station tolerate and support one another, as well as the moon landing.
Dish , a much-touted movie at the Sundance Film Festival, is in a lot of ways a romantic comedy. Although there's a geek-goes-after-the-girl subplot, its real love story is between this small cadre of strange scientists and science itself. Thrust suddenly into history, they're desperate not to screw things up, which they very nearly do.
One of the techs forgets to fuel a back-up generator, and during a brief power failure, the dish station loses all its computer data. They can't locate the signal from Apollo 11. The crew decide to hide this potential disaster from NASA. Fearful of getting shut out of the project, they sit up all night re-configuring calculations and re-booting as the NASA bureaucrat covers for them -- at which point this really becomes a team effort. He gets their pride and sense of excitement; they get his.
In a smaller way, there's as much heat on the satellite station as there is on Mission Control in Houston. At least, one of movie's many strengths is that it makes you feel that way. The U.S. Ambassador is hovering anxiously nearby, as is the Australian Prime Minister (who learned of the whole project a few days before the launch in a phone call from President Nixon), the town's proud and ambitious mayor, and much of the country.
Few Hollywood studios would make a movie as small in scale. There are no stars, besides Neill, no special effects, bloodshed, faux drama, just an affectionate portrayal of a few decent people caught up in history and trying to live up to that responsibility. Mostly, it's an ode to the people who care passionately about science, and will do almost anything to advance it.
It's typical of U.S.-centric approaches to history that few of us watching her had any consciousness of the fact that those black and white pictures -- footage that's been reproduced all over the planet for years -- were made possible by the ingenuity, determination and tech skills of a handful of Australian nerds.
It's typical too, that The Dish the highest grossing Australian film in the history of Australian cinema -- is struggling to get wide distribution in American movie theaters. Probably it's too warm, funny and smart. Catch it if you can: The movie deserves support, and you'll enjoy seeing it.