Houston, We Have a Problem: Revisiting The Dish

Our resident Aussie, Cal, recommends this delightful true-life tale of Australia’s involvement in the moon landings.


Masterminded by the same quartet responsible for 1997’s The Castle ( and Jane Kennedy), The Dish is another thoroughly delightful Australian drama-comedy, as well as a welcome history lesson that zeroes in on overlooked but important events from 1969. Devoid of big expensive special effects, the charms of The Dish are derived from its astute character work, the affable ensemble cast, and its dry, typically Aussie sense of humour. But above all of that, the film tells a simple yet amazing true-life story about dedication which will linger in your mind long after the end credits have expired. In short, The Dish is the perfect alternative to generic action blockbusters or dumb, crude American comedies, and it developed into something of an internationally-beloved motion picture for good reason.

Before the launch of Apollo 11 in July of 1969, NASA reaches out to the small rural Australian town of Parkes, which is home to the largest radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. Situated in the middle of a sheep paddock, Houston seeks to use the dish to receive and relay transmissions from Apollo 11 in the Southern Hemisphere, including both communications and the images of the prestigious moon landing itself. The telescope is operated by pipe-smoking “dishmaster” Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill), along with Mitch (Kevin Harrington) and Glenn (Tom Long), while young Rudi (Taylor Kane) harbours great pride for his role as the dish’s Head of Security. To supervise things, NASA sends along a representative in Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton). With the Apollo 11 mission getting underway, local Mayor Bob McIntyre (Roy Billing) could not be more excited or proud about his town’s involvement with NASA, schmoozing a United States Ambassador (John McMartin) as he awaits the arrival of the Prime Minister (Billie Brown).

The story of the Apollo 11 astronauts and the 1969 moon landing is surely well-known enough, as it has been told many times before in motion pictures and documentaries. The Dish therefore relegates that story to the background, eschewing an American viewpoint to concentrate on an element of the Apollo 11 mission that’s seldom written about. The Dish takes place entirely in the town of Parkes, and never cuts away to any dramatic recreations of the astronauts aboard Apollo 11. Naturally, the script does take certain liberties with history, such as somewhat minimising the role of NASA’s Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station near Canberra, but it’s not a big deal – after all, most historical films are fictionalised to some extent. What matters is that The Dish is dramatically satisfying and well-rounded, framed around an aging Buxton who visits the radio telescope to gaze upon her again, which brings back memories.

The Dish is packed with subplots to add further colour to the story, as this is more than just another movie about the moon landing – it’s primarily about a town gathering together, as well as the unsung courage of the individuals whose indispensable contributions are often overlooked. There is a sweet subplot involving the shy Glenn, who playfully flirts with pretty local girl Janine (Eliza Szonert), while the visitation of the American Ambassador at one stage forces the dish crew to fake a radio transmission with Apollo 11. The Dish is very funny, but it earns hearty belly-laughs through genuinely witty writing, as it’s devoid of crude or mean-spirited content. Indeed, rest assured that even though it carries a PG-13 rating for a single use of the word “fuck,” the movie is suitable for all audiences.

Sitch may be the only credited director on the project, but the closing credits make it clear that credit for The Dish belongs to the four-person team of Sitch, Cilauro, Gleisner and Kennedy, as they wrote, produced and conceived the movie together. Backed by a modest budget, the film may not carry the slick appearance of a big-budget Hollywood movie, but it’s agreeably old-fashioned in its cinematic approach, demeanour and laid-back pacing. Miraculously, the movie never necessarily feels like a low-budget endeavour, as it does not look cheap or nasty. Shot on 35mm film by cinematographer Graeme Wood, the movie carries a warm appearance and is full of period details, effortlessly and subtly evoking the late 1960s. In addition, Sitch and co. make extensive use of archival video and audio clips at various points to amplify the illusion and further set the scene. The climactic moon landing itself is incredibly touching, and Sitch wisely lets the event speak for itself by relying on the archival material. The sequence drives home the real significance of the event, which could have ended in disaster at any point, and it’s rewarding to see the main characters’ hard work paying off. The accompanying original score by Edmund Choi (who also scored The Castle) is suitably majestic and full of flavour, while the movie also features an agreeable selection of memorable classic songs (“The Real Thing”) and pieces of music (“Classical Gas”).

The ensemble cast is filled out by a terrific selection of Aussie actors, from the always-reliable Billing as the Mayor, to The Castle‘s Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell as a Reverend. Perhaps the most recognisable face in the cast is Neill (a New Zealand native) who brings his trademark gravitas and warmth to the role of Cliff Buxton. The acting is convincing and natural across the board, with spot-on comedic timing from everybody in the ensemble. Good-natured, funny, touching and warm, The Dish further verifies that the Working Dog team have a knack for creating films that manage to be dramatic and funny, whilst never taking themselves too seriously or talking down to the audience. And all on a meagre budget that would barely cover the catering of a major Hollywood production. The Dish is a genuine cinematic treat.

Useless Trivia

 (Via IMDb)
  • The film is set in the town of Parkes, in New South Wales, Aus., but was actually filmed in Forbes, which is a neighboring town a few miles down the road. The reason for the re-filming is because Parkes has changed over the last 30 years, but Forbes hasn’t changed as much – Forbes still looked like a 1960s town, like Parkes did 30 years before.
  • Parkes technicians sometimes do take a ride on the moving dish, as Cliff explains in the film. However, the scene depicting the Parkes crew playing cricket on the dish, while filmed on location on the actual dish, is a fictional scenario.
  • The moon phase during the Apollo 11 landing was first quarter, the full moon shots shown in the film wouldn’t have been what anyone saw day. Also, being a first quarter, at the time of the landings (almost 10 pm Houston time) the moon was invisible from North America. Australia was the only place that could receive the pictures of the first steps on the moon.




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