The most notable aspect of The Dish is the ingenious timing of its release. Although conceived in the mid '90s by four members of the Working Dog team (Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy and Rob Sitch), it weighs in as a celebratory allegory about Australia's hosting of the Olympic Games in 2000.
The Dish, based loosely on a true story, is about NASA's use of a telescope in Parkes, New South Wales, to beam the pictures of the first moon landing to the rest of the world. The entire conceit of the film is contained in that plot concept – from there, the filmmakers spin the idea that Australia, on that day, "joined the modern world", literally patching itself into a global community and winning the respect of all peoples.
The film is also the story of a very Aussie team: the humble scientists Cliff (Sam Neill), Mitch (Kevin Harrington) and Glenn (Tom Long) who have this momentous responsibility for the moon broadcast suddenly thrust upon them – as well as a somewhat cold, efficient and snotty American, Al (Patrick Warburton).
But, just as the warm, media-induced glow of the opening ceremony of the Olympics inevitably began to wear off, I wonder how long The Dish will work as a rousing, populist fable. It is a very contrived and self-conscious film, a world away from the winning, homespun, suburban humour of the previous Working Dog production, The Castle (1997). Although The Dish is a more handsomely produced film, its ambitions far outstrip its skills.
The film's problems begin with its central idea. In order to push the slightly spurious idea that Australia grew up on that day in 1969 – shades here of an equally naive, populist film, Mr Reliable (1997) – the nation's naivety to that point needs to be highly exaggerated. Australian culture has never seemed so homely or backward as it does in this movie – a patchwork of city council meetings, polite afternoon teas and blushing, virginal teenagers.
This is the late '60s? Only an interrupted, three second blast of Hendrix's "Purple Haze" from a school band reminds us of a forward looking, popular counter-culture blissfully written out of the film. This is not mere carping about historical accuracy; it goes to the very heart of the film's sensibility and viewpoint.
Director Sitch packages The Dish as a modern-day equivalent to a warm, fuzzy, humanitarian, ecumenical movie by Frank Capra. (Warning to all filmmakers: do not describe your second film as "mature".) Specifically, this means evoking tension between Australians and Americans – there are some fine, prickly moments devoted to this – in order, finally, to dissolve it in an orgy of mutual congratulation and acceptance. Again, like in the Olympics.
This is a bizarre distortion of cultural history. Very tellingly, the only reference to the Vietnam war or any other burning political issue of the period is put into the mouth of a hapless young teenager, Marie (Lenka Kripac) – a pasty, throwaway character whose constant background whinings about the moon landing as "chauvinistic" and "imperialistic" cannot be taken seriously for a moment. (Besides, this supposed radical is instantly won over by a charming male compliment.)
Beyond its dubious premises, The Dish has more mundane failings.
Sitch could learn a few lessons in direction from Yahoo Serious. For big, supposedly cinematic effects, he depends upon sweeping aerial shots of the dish itself, and a heavy-handed, tear-jerking score by Edmund Choi. A touch of the elegiac ponderously frames the movie: Cliff as an old man (a bit like Robert De Niro in Once Upon a Time in America ) looking up at the dish and shuffling away.
Where it really counts, however – in ordinary scenes of characters talking, which take up most of the film – The Dish is almost as much like a bland television sitcom as The Castle was. There is very little felicitous surprise in the way Sitch frames, stages and cuts the banter between his four central characters. Only in the genuinely emotionally scene where everyone stops to watch the historic moon landing – undoubtedly the movie's highlight – do all the filmic elements click together well.
The Dish is also like a television program – and like The Castle – in the way it incessantly repeats jokes based on particular character affectations, such as the histrionic bumbling of the dish's security guard, Rudi (Tayler Kane), or the anxious reactions of the local mayor, Bob (Roy Billing), as he proceeds from one town function to another. Most of the humour in the film is derived from low-level moments of social embarrassment, which becomes a wearing spectacle. Tom Long, an actor who needs stronger direction, is especially grating in his ceaselessly nervy, nerdy role.
The Dish has undoubted entertainment value, and it boasts a very impressive performance from Sam Neill, perfectly cast. But, in its Olympian determination to "celebrate humanity", the film becomes much softer and gooier than it ever needed to be.
© Adrian Martin October 2000