The Dish
directed by Rob Sitch
(Warner Brothers, 2000)

On city street corners they stood, craning their necks to see televisions displayed in shop windows. In distant classrooms they sat hushed, leaning forward over desks and straining to see images streaming from thousands of miles away. And in the Vatican, Pope Paul sat and watched as the blurred figure of a space-suited man hesitated on the bottom rung of a ladder before hopping off onto the surface of the moon.

In a lifetime, there aren't many moments with emotion intense enough to cross national and ideological boundaries.

But, nearly 35 years ago, Neil Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11 were the players in another event that changed everyday perceptions of what was possible. And the black-and-white images that shot through the universe to Earth -- how did they get here? How is it possible that those iconographic moments exist?

The Dish has the answer.

The gentle Australian movie, full of humor, is about the small-town radio telescope with worldwide impact. Seems the whiz-bang scientists at NASA needed a southern hemisphere outlet to receive Apollo 11's television signals. And the tiny town of Parkes, in New South Wales, was home to the most powerful receiving dish in the world.

No matter that it sat (and still sits) in the center of a sheep pasture. (In reality, NASA used its facility at Honeysuckle Creek elsewhere in Australia. But the based-in-reality principle remains the same).

The PR buzz on The Dish says the film is about what happens when the receiver "flatlines" at just the crucial moment in the flight. It's a matter of pride for the Parkes scientists to get it up and running without NASA missing a beat. But that's to sell the movie short.

The Dish also looks at what it's like for a small town to be in the center of such a monumental moment, and what it was like to watch as science, in the words of one character, "became daring."

There are lots of things I love about the film -- not the least of which is Sam Neill as an understated Cliff Buxton, Parkes' lead guy. I liked how The Dish looks at a quintessentially American moment in a way that makes you realize the moonwalk was really a human moment. And I loved how its pacing, its humor and the small details it chooses show us how much the world has changed since a flag was planted on the moon.

Of course, Parkes does have its characters -- the mayor's daughter, who thinks the whole endeavor is fascistic and chauvinistic -- his wife, who has a sense of propriety and the way things "should be" handled ("The dress is not yellow," she informs her husband, "it is lemon."), the scientists at the dish. But it's handled without any of the condescension often found in big films about small towns.

And if you doubt the world has changed since Apollo 11: The crew was supposed to rest before beginning the moonwalk. But Armstrong and his men overruled NASA and began their exit from the capsule early -- before television reception had been established.

In an era when everything is scheduled, put on hold, rushed so CNN can cover it, when NFL games have TV timeouts so you don't miss a single play, the decision to have life dictate television, and not the other way around, is an amazing thing.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 9 March 2002

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