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Houston, We Have a Sticky Wicket

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 6, 2001


    'The Dish' Sam Neill, Tom Long and Kevin Harrington in "The Dish." (Warner Brothers)
On July 19, 1969, Neil Armstrong took his giant leap, and thanks to an intrepid trio of Australian scientists, the world was a witness. "The Dish," a quaint and colorful comedy of errors based on real events, recounts the flubs, flukes and foolishness that almost sabotaged the historic broadcast.

Most of the action – which amounts to turning dials and flipping switches – takes place inside the control room of a 100-ton satellite dish in Parkes, a Mayberry-like village in New South Wales. For a change of pace now and then, the quirkynerds who operate the dish scramble atop the plate for a game of cricket. Oh, those Australians!

The dish, planted on a sheep farm, is the pride and joy of the populace of Parkes. The people become positively giddy when they learn that their dish will figure in the lunar mission, if only as a backup to NASA's primary space-signal receiver in Goldstone, Calif. Even the prime minister of Australia comes to town for the event.

Directed and co-written by Rob Sitch ("The Castle"), the sometimes sluggish movie taps into nostalgia for the heyday of the Space Age and the innocence of the era. Audiences were still awed by the progress of technology, and although the thrill was gone by the time Apollo 13 was launched, nobody had been-there-done-that 32 years ago. Folks were glued to their screens like hair spray to a fat bouffant.

Long on charm but short on dramatic tension, the movie draws most of its energy from the cultural conflict between an intrusive NASA representative (a square, buttoned-down Patrick Warburton) and the Down Underlings, who resent his condescending attitude. After all, they have been in charge of their dish, thank you very much, and resent his meddling. After partaking of lamb chops with a local family, the NASA noodge loosens his tie, but not his grip on the proceedings.

Meanwhile Sam Neill, as the overly mild-mannered, pipe-smoking manager of the facility, tries to keep his bitter engineer (blustering Kevin Harrington) from boiling over while simultaneously bolstering the ego of his timid proto-techie (Tom Long).

When the California apparatus fails, Parkes becomes NASA's only hope of intercepting the television signals from Apollo 11. Unbeknown to Mission Control, the men have severe problems of their own and must learn to trust one another if they are to locate the spacemen's signal.

Though a little short on fuel, "The Dish" is simple fare, a feel-good movie that re-creates a time and place with gentle humor and a reminder that the Aussies have the right stuff, too.

"The Dish" (100 minutes) is rated PG-13 for language.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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