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[whitespace] 'The Dish'
Swing for the Stars: Sam Neill (left), Kevin Harrington (center) and Tom Long take a break from checking the heavens in 'The Dish.'

Moon Men

'The Dish' is a captivating comedy about the first moon walk

By Richard von Busack

WHEN A CHARACTER turns up doddering in old-age makeup at the beginning of a film, as Sam Neill does in The Dish, you can reasonably expect the worst. Also, the news that The Dish is one of the most popular films in Australian history may seem to be another contraindication (remembering Yahoo Serious' Young Einstein and Crocodile Dundee). It's not that I think Australia hasn't proven itself at the movies. The actor who did win and the one who should have won at the Oscars this year were both Australian. It's just that there's a cute, underachieving streak in some of popular Aus comedies--especially The Castle, a forgettable suburban yokel comedy that was director Rob Sitch's previous film.

The Dish is about a dozen times better than The Castle. Set in 1969, it tells the true, if heavily fictionalized, story of the Parkes radio telescope, which proved essential for bringing down images of the first moon landing. A skeleton crew (in real life, there were some 20 engineers and physicists) holds down the fort under the attention of a vaguely menacing NASA liaison (Patrick Warburton). Power failures, political pressure and an unexpected cyclone seem ready to overcome the transmission.

The spirit is pure Ealing comedy, with Commonwealth versions of the eccentrics that used to people those gentle British films of the 1950s. As Cliff Buxton, Neill plays your classic cardigan-sweatered "boffin" ("scientific expert") with a pipe and a slide rule. He goes through the film in a state of poignant, restrained bereavement (his wife never lived to see the landing). Warburton, superb as a New Frontiersman type, acts very well around a pair of thick-framed glasses. Meanwhile, two grad students stay up all night to crunch numbers: Mitch, a homely joker (Kevin Harrington), and one terminally shy kid named Glenn (Tom Long), who pines over a local girl (Eliza Szonert, most bubbly).

Through Sitch's images of a backward town in a backward land--tinted pleasantly, as in vintage postcards--the political baggage of the moon landing gets waylaid. It's inviting to see the lunar landing as these characters see it, as something tremendously futuristic in the middle of an unimaginably low-tech past, represented by the herds of sheep grazing around the telescope and by the sweet jingly pop music by Bert Kaempfert and Herb Alpert. Yes, The Dish observes that Richard Nixon placed the first phone call to the moon, which took some of the fun out of the event--and yes, Neill's old-age bracketing is a coarse assault on the emotions. But The Dish lures the viewer in to bask in memories of low-tech computation and the highest hopes. A valleyful of computer geeks can't afford to miss this film.

The Dish (PG-13; 104 min.), directed by Rob Sitch, written by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy and Rob Sitch, photographed by Graeme Wood and starring Sam Neill and Patrick Warburton, opens Friday at the Century Cinema 16 in Mountain View and at the Century 22 in San Jose.

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From the April 5-11, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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