Keeping the signal

Four men struggle to hold a global TV audience.

THE SPACE AGE now seems as distant as the Stone Age, regardless of the recent Oscar appearance by our space station’s crew. Those glorious early Cold War days of orbits, moon walks, and ticker tape parades have been oddly transformed into history almost as soon as they happened. Why? Television. It’s no coincidence that MTV made the astronaut its original emblem: We lionized the men of the Apollo programs, The Right Stuff generation, but now they somehow signal nostalgia (think back to the stiff, geriatric Space Cowboys).


directed by Rob Stich with Sam Neill, Patrick Warburton, Kevin Harrington, and Tom Long opens April 6 at Guild 45th and Meridian 16

Wisely, then, this thoroughly pleasing and conventional Australian comedy acknowledges and embraces the very pastness of outer space. Instead of giving us Apollo 13-style heroics, it focuses upon a subplot of the July 1969 Apollo 11 mission that first set human foot to the lunar surface. Instead of the moon, we have the small remote town of Parkes, where middle-aged widower Cliff (The Piano‘s Sam Neill) presides as a gentle paterfamilias over a giant radio telescope. With pipe and cardigan, he’s a font of paternal guidance like Fred MacMurray in My Three Sons;his charges are chip-on-his-shoulder Mitch (Kevin Harrington) and shy math wiz Glenn (Tom Long).

Charged with relaying Apollo 11’s video signal to our living rooms, they’re a surrogate family whose dynamic is interrupted by the arrival of NASA bureaucrat Al (Seinfeld‘s Patrick Warburton). Of course the Aussies and American clash, and of course they reconcile—since we know the scenes of Neil Armstrong and company were miraculously broadcast back to earth to an audience of millions. (So much for drama.)

“This is science’s chance to be daring,” enthuses Cliff, but it’s also Parkes’ chance to shine. Hence the appeal of The Dish—it’s an unabashed celebration of small-town values in an innocent, bygone age. Corny? Sure, but if you go for that sort of thing, the wonderful Australian character actors who make up the townsfolk will win you over. It’s a square, simple, sentimental, PG-13 feel-good flick that manages to feel fresh despite its predictability. (But, oh, that stupid Saving Private Ryan-style framing device!)

Neill hasn’t got much to do besides exude benevolence; the movie’s real star is the massive, slowly grinding geometry of the photogenic dish itself. Still a functioning, active astronomy installation, it’s lit and shot from a variety of perspectives, becoming as grandly iconic as the pyramids or the Easter Island statues. Taking us back to an era when TV was still good for you, this mammoth receiver reminds how Armstrong’s “beautiful view” was all the more beautiful because it was improbably, magically shared by all mankind.

VISITING SEATTLE recently, director Rob Stich explained how little public awareness there was about the true story underlying The Dish: “Prior to the film—zero. I would say that 99.9 percent [of Australians] didn’t know. I certainly didn’t. When I was told, I thought it was an urban legend. No one had pulled it out of the archives in 30 years.”

Because of our familiarity with the first moon walk, he muses, “It’s almost like the story’s too known. We thought, ‘This is the best way to go around it. You gotta come at it through a small story . . . through human beings that experienced it on the other side of the world.'”

Yet the small, friendly town of Parkes isn’t meant as the mere pat antithesis to our cynical age, Stich cautions: “You can’t bring contemporary sensibilities. Comedy puts a certain veil over things.” Of that time, three decades removed, he notes, “It feels like it’s not period yet—and that’s what makes it hard. The changes are so subtle over 30 years.”

Reflecting on the general cinematic tendency to focus on family dysfunction and instability (so noticeably absent in The Dish), he concludes, “People are almost afraid to write about relationships that are in operation.”