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"The Dish" serves up history with gentle humor and hard-to-resist characters.

Lunar Lunacy


Most Americans know something about the 1969 lunar landing; heck, some of us even remember watching it live, filled with awe and pride. At the time, the incredible feat seemed to embody the American fighting spirit of our forefathers. Beating the odds — and the Russians — "we" had won the space race.

But wait, it seems others — non-Americans at that — have a reason to share in the moment, to bask in the reflected glow of Neil Armstrong and crew's awesome touch down. If you don't believe it, make sure you catch "The Dish," the most enjoyable movie to come out of Australia since "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert."

The movie's title refers to a gigantic radio telescope in a sheep field in remote Parkes, New South Wales, which ended up playing a major role in relaying broadcasts of that historic first moonwalk to the world. The considerable obstacles its operators had to overcome provide the drama in this feel-good movie, which mixes off-kilter characters with fact-based comedy.

Like the rest of the world, the folks in Parkes follow the journey's every development. But because three of their own scientists are part of the project, twisting dials in the building supporting the giant dish, this great American event is theirs, too. "This is a good day for Parkes," almost becomes the standard greeting among the townsfolk.

Directed by Rob Sitch, who previously worked on the delightful but little-seen "The Castle," this Aussie bit of lunacy orbits around the central performance of Sam Neill. As the film's anchor, Neill turns in an understated but assured performance as Cliff Buxton, a dedicated scientist whose installation is thrust into the limelight — and history — when necessity and NASA elevate its status from backup to the prime receiver for mankind's giant leap.

From Neill's first moment on screen, he sets the tone for the movie. Strict yet kind, he carries with him a certain sadness we come to understand late in the film. With his two subordinates, shy and gangling Glenn (Tom Long) and impatient, thin-skinned Mitch (Kevin Harrington), Neill sets about doing work that sure looks boring but ends up seeming heroic.

Being an Australian film, "The Dish" has its share of quirky secondary characters, including a boneheaded security guard, an overly exuberant teen cadet and the girl he has a crush on, the anti-capitalist daughter of Parkes' mayor. They all get bitten by the lunar bug, particularly after the mayor's wife puts together a fancy-dress ball that draws acceptances from both the Australian prime minister and the American ambassador.

NASA's representative in Parkes is Al Burton (Patrick Warburton, "Seinfeld's" Puddy), a powerfully built Yank with a no-nonsense square jaw and a formal, serious demeanor. This guy plays by the book, which causes the Aussie team some tense moments, especially when a power failure wipes out the computer programs needed to get a fix on the path of Apollo 11. But Buxton and gang go straight to work, doing calculations on a chalkboard until common sense tells them where to find the spaceship.

Cleverly weaving cross-cultural comedy with that inspirational-bloke type of "can-do" spirit, the movie builds to a rousing climax as the crew risk their lives by manipulating the massive satellite dish in 110-mph winds to capture the momentous first steps on the moon.

"The Dish" is not without its share of sappy moments and more than a few too many contrived, cornball running gags. But "The Dish" also offers up a few goose-bump moments as well, befitting the major-goose-bump moment of the lunar landing. And though we know what to expect at the movie's end, it feels just right to sit back and marvel and cheer all over again at what took place that day in 1969.

"The Dish" proves that, when done with restraint, even historic nostalgia can be entertaining.

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