In the Summer of 1969, the small Australian town of Parkes in New South Wales comes to unexpected fame. The huge 64 meter radio telescope located in a sheep paddock near the city had already been an integral part of NASA's communications network in the lead-up to the Apollo 11 moon landing mission, but to the surprise of the local and even national politicians the role of the facility is upgraded to prime station - meaning that they will be in charge of receiving the television signals of man's first steps on the moon. Director Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill) and his colleagues Ross Mitchell (Kevin Harrington) and Glenn Latham (Tom Long) are the small team working on the important task of controlling the giant dish in the crucial moments, which turns out to be more difficult than they had imagined. While the town prepares for the festivities, unexpected problems are threatening their part in the moon landing mission...
The first moon landing in 1969 has, of course, never faded into obscurity, because everything that happened was extensively documented and everybody alive at that point in history should have witnessed these events in one form or another. But everybody born after 1969 was not able to witness the monumental media spectacle happening and cannot imagine the huge excitement all over the world - perhaps only the landing of the first Mars rover in 1997 is rudimentary comparable. But the work of all the hundreds or even thousands of anonymous people who were working in the background to make the moon landing possible was much less known. In the late 1990s, a group of Australian filmmakers set out to tell the stories of some of these people in a very human and funny way.
In 1961, the biggest radio telescope on the southern hemisphere was built near the town of Parkes, a little city with a population of just 10000 in New South Wales. The huge radio telescope with a dish size of 64 meters had already been integrated into NASA's network of receiving stations for their spaceflight missions since 1966 because many other telescopes with 26 meter dishes were not large enough and NASA's own 64-meter radio telescope in Goldstone was not fully operational yet. Shortly before the launch of Apollo 11 the decision was made that the Parkes telescope should have more than a redundant backup function during the flight to the moon and was even scheduled to be used for a large portion of the television broadcast of the first moonwalk in history.
In the early 1990s, the Australian filmmakers Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro, Jane Kennedy and Tom Gleisner, better known as Working Dog, had come upon the before little-known fact that an Australian radio telescope played a large role during the first moon landing. Of these previously nearly unknown events, they made a little, affectionate comedy which was far removed from the typical Australian clichés á la Crocodile Dundee and did not even aspire to be a dramatic space thriller like Apollo 13. It was, however, one of the most amazing and surprising movies about the moon landing,
The radio telescope was, and still is, not located in the wild outback, but in a nice sheep paddock and Parkes is a cozy little town with very friendly and utterly normal inhabitants. While the story of the moon landing was the central event of the plot, it takes a step back to bring the happenings in the little Australian city into the foreground. It was only the second movie production of the Working Dog team, who had landed a surprise hit in 1997 with their brilliant comedy The Castle, whose success made it possible for them to realize their dream project to tell the story of the moon landing from a completely unique perspective.
As a very Hollywood-untypical movie, The Dish did not really have a star-studded cast - perhaps with the exception of Sam Neill, who was mainly cast because of his roots in New Zealand and Australia and less because of his stardom. Ever since he had appeared as the paleontologist Allan Grant in Steven Spielberg's blockbuster Jurassic Park he became one of the most sought-after character actors in Hollywood, but Working Dog did not need long to convince him of their unique project. To their amazement, Neill almost immediately took their offer to play the role of Cliff Buxton, the director of the Parkes radio telescope. He plays his character with a lot of charme and calmness, making the almost old-fashioned scientist a very human and realistic figure. His character was based on the British-Australian radio astronomer John G. Bolton, who had spearheaded the construction of the Parkes telescope and was its first director from 1961 to 1972. Sam Neills character is of course only superficially related to him, but the actor brings him to life in a very original and brilliant way.
The filmmakers had found Kevin Harrington through the two popular Australian television series Neighbours and Sea Change, choosing him for the role of Russ "Mitch" Mitchell, the technician and engineer of the team. The very outspoken and direct Mitch was a perfect counterpart for his more quiet and thoughtful boss Cliff Buxton and is played by Kevin Harrington not exactly as a typical Australian stereotype, but still with a lot of irony and sarcasm. His model was Neil "Fox" Mason, the technician running the telescope operations on the day of the moon landing, who in contrast to his fictional alter ego had no chance to watch the moon landing because he was too busy controlling the wind-shaken telescope.
The third one in the small team was the computer and mathematics expert Glenn Latham, who is portrayed by Tom Long, who was also noticed by the filmmakers in Sea Change. He was not actually representing a single person, but a whole group of people working at Parkes in the 1960s. The shy character of Glenn was what we today would call a geek or a nerd, but the actor made much more out of his role than a clown or a simple comedy performance - he is a real person and even involved in a mini-lovestory with a local girl called Janine, also wonderfully played by Eliza Szonert, another Neighbours alumni. She in turn is the sister of the observatory's security guard Rudi, who is the actual comedic diversion of the movie, played in all mock-earnestness by Tayler Kane - both siblings are of course completely fictional characters.
One of the few American actors in The Dish was found by the filmmakers in New York: Patrick Warburton came to fame in the television series Seinfeld, but he was not chosen by the Working Dog team for his comedic talent, but because they liked his very dry American style very much. Warburton portrays the NASA representative Al Burnett, who is something of an antagonist in the story, but turns into an ally and a fully sympathetic figure later in the plot. Despite the comedic roots of Patrick Warburton, it actually is one of the more straight and earnest characters of the movie, but he also gives the NASA authority a very human perspective.
The many smaller parts were also perfectly cast with lots of unforgettable Australian actors. Roy Billings as Bob McIntyre, the mayor of Parkes, Genevieve Mooy as his wife and Lenka Kripac and Carl Snell as their children are especially wonderful and portray a completely normal family, because the filmmakers had made the wise choice not to burden their movie with unnecessary personal tragedies. Much more satirical is the appearance of the great stage actor Bille Brown as the Australian Prime Minister, who, along his counterpart John Mc Martin as the American ambassador, has a lot of fun with his character, playing him in an affectionate way as a boisterous politician. Charles "Bud" Tingwell, who had a larger role in Working Dog's previous film The Castle and also played Inspector Craddock alongside Margaret Rutherford's Miss Marple in the 1960s, also made a short cameo appearance as a priest.
To achieve more narrative freedom, the Working Dog team had of course fictionalised the story to a certain degree. The Dish was not meant as a completely accurate documentary and not even as a docudrama, although the events in Parkes in 1969 were used as a model for the story and were tightly integrated into the plot. There was actually much more personnel in Parkes and more than only one NASA representative, but the core of the team at the radio telescope and many other key characters were based on real persons, which were not simply satirized, but written as very affectionate tributes to the many people involved in the events.
The actual events have been somewhat dramatised to expand the story and make it more exciting, but without exaggerating too much or being unrealistic. While the role of the Parkes radio telescope had been made a bit larger than it actually was, the only fact that was actually changed is the moment the television pictures from Parkes were used in the worldwide broadcast. There have been some heated discussions after the release of the movie especially from the former staff of the Honeysuckle Creek tracking station, who actually provided the image in the first nine minutes before NASA switched to Parkes. But it has also been established that Parkes, where the moon was just barely rising enough to get a signal, was able to receive enough data to see Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon themselves. In the end, the rest of the two and a half hour moonwalk was actually broadcast from Parkes only and they had in fact been promoted to prime receiving station.
The wind threatening the dish was, however, real, very dangerous and perhaps even the reason why the television feed from Parkes was used only nine minutes into the broadcast - by using an off-axis receiver, they were able to receive the signal even with the moon very low in the sky and with the heavy winds the signal might easily have gotten lost again. There was also a short power outage, but it did not have the dramatic consequences portrayed in the movie, although locating the spaceship again after moonrise was actually quite complicated because the coordinates provided by NASA were notoriously inaccurate. The incident in the movie also seems to be partly based on the events at another Australian tracking station in Tidbinbilla, where a fire in a power supply damaged a transmitter so heavily two days into the moon flight that the station was not able to fulfill its role in the tracking network.
The Dish had originally been planned as a full-out comedy, but even after the filmmakers had decided to write the story in a slightly more dramatic way, many humorous elements were still used. A few deviations from reality can be forgiven because The Dish is not about complete historic accuracy, but about the very special atmosphere, which the Working Dog team got exactly right. The movie manages to reproduce the almost magical mood of the late 1960s in a remarkably nonchalant and fresh way without having to resort to typical cliches at all. This was also achieved with a very well written and structured script - The Dish is a very talkative movie and delivers most of its unique atmosphere through its brilliant and witty dialogue.
The secret main character of the movie is of course the huge radio telescope, which had not been created with models or computer animations, but was really used as the background for the main part of the plot. The filmmakers were able to get a shooting permit from the CSIRO, Australias national science agency, who allowed them full access to the facility for a couple of weeks and even let them move the dish at their will. Cinematographer Graeme Wood was not only able to magnificently capture the dish from the ground, but the filmmakers were also allowed on the actual dish surface, allowing for many atmospheric and fascinating shots not only during the day, but also at night. A few wonderful helicopter aerial views were also shot which almost got the camera team in trouble because they were not supposed to fly so close to the dish.
While as much footage as possible was shot at the telescope itself, one main location could unfortunately not be used: the control room had just changed too much over the years and was also much too small for a camera crew. But the filmmakers made up for it by constructing an exact replica in the film studio. They even got some unexpected help from CSIRO, who had some of the old consoles and technical equipment not destroyed, but safely stored away so that they were able to be used as props in the movie. Former employees visiting the set were so astonished by the great authenticity that they felt like they had gone back in time. But after all, a few scenes were shot in the main telescope building - the little kitchen had not changed much and was used for one very special scene.
Most of the other indoor scenes were also filmed in wonderfully detailed sets designed by Carrie Kennedy and Ben Morieson to ensure the reproduction of the correct 1960s atmosphere. But the outdoor shots did not need a studio, although the town of Parkes was only partly suitable for this role because it had become too modern over the years. Instead, the filmmakers relocated to the neighbouring town of Forbes, whose inner city had not changed much and was able to represent Parkes in the year 1969 with only very minor changes.
The Dish did not need any expensive special effects, because everything shown from the moon mission was archive material, which had been carefully selected after long and extensive research and was seamlessly integrated into the plot. The movie starts with a remarkable montage of archive footage from the era of the space race leading up to Apollo 10 and the preparations for Apollo 11. Its purpose was to introduce the setting of the story in a quick and unmistakable way and showing the viewers the premise of the coming plot. This way magnificently done and proved to be one of the most memorable scenes of the movie.
While the extensive NASA photo and film archives proved to be of invaluable help for the filmmakers, at first the idea was to only use Australian material. But to their great disappointment they found out that a lot had been wiped, destroyed or not even recorded in the first place. After an extensive search, some news films and broadcasts were located and carefully interwoven with American and other international footage. The material was integrated into the movie with the rule that the viewer gets only to see only what the characters watch in the movie - because of this there are no spectacular high-resolution sequences of the Apollo 11 spaceship or crystal clear moonwalk videos, but only that what was broadcast in 1969 - which is no less fascinating combined with the wonderful plot of the movie.
In the matter of musical accompaniment the Working Dog team had also spared no efforts and made not only a first-class film score possible, but also prepared a meticulously chosen collection of pop songs. For the orchestral score they had once again partnered with American composer Edmund Choi, with whom they had already worked on The Castle, but like the movie itself the music evades every single Australian cliche. There is not one didgeridoo to be heard, instead the score was recorded with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to provide a very warm, friendly and majestic score with beautiful melodies and even a remarkable choral piece for one special sequence. There are some slight similarities to the music of Apollo 13, but Edmund Choi's composition does not have any of the harsh militaristic undertones of James Horners much more American-sounding score.
The songs go hand in hand with Edmund Choi's orchestral arrangements and were not randomly chosen, but a very thoroughly researched collection sharing one trademark: most of them were in the charts in the summer of 1969 and the filmmakers had chosen many songs from musicians of their own country. Russell Morris especially represents the Australian pop music scene with his two greatest hits - an extract of his brilliant psychedelic song The Real Thing was carefully crafted on to the archive montage of the title sequence, while The Wings of an Eagle, actually recorded in 1972, was used as a beautiful way to close the story with some breathtaking aerial shots of the dish. Many other songs are scattered throughout the movie and constantly surprise because they fit so amazingly well into their scenes, almost leaving the impression that they were actually written for the movie - like Mason Williams' guitar instrumental Classical Gas, which was perfect for the scene in which the dish is moved for the first time.
The movie was mostly shot in Spring 1999 and at first was supposed to be released for the 30th anniversary of the moon landing in summer or autumn of the year. But the extensive editing and post-production phase and negotiations with distributors all over the world meant that the actual release was postponed until the following year. The world premiere of The Dish was not held in Australia, but in September 2000 at the Toronto Film Festival in Canada, where Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro, Jane Kennedy and Tom Gleisner earned a lot of praise for their wonderful movie. After the regular release in October of that year The Dish became a huge box office success in Australia, but it took another six months until the movie was finally shown in the rest of the world.
Warner, who always had a loose association with Village Roadshow, the Australian distributors and co-producers of The Dish, released the movie in March 2001 in the USA. European cinemas, with different distributors in each country because none of the big studios were interested, followed during the summer. Although the movie had already become a huge hit in Australia, cashing in nearly 20 million dollars at the box office, it was a comparative flop in the USA and Europe, where it mostly failed to capture the audience. This was mainly the fault of the marketing campaign, which suggested a deft Aussie comedy in the vein of Crocodile Dundee with photos of sheep and even kangaroos on the posters and trailers giving a completely wrong impression of the film. Many viewers were disappointed with the quiet and intelligent humour and completely missed the point of the movie.
Thanks to quick DVD releases first in Australia even before most international cinema premieres and later in the USA and Europe, The Dish became a sleeper hit and in spite of its minor historic inaccuracies is now regarded as one of the most brilliant movies about the moon race, often being compared to other space exploration movies like Apollo 13, From the Earth to the Moon and The Right Stuff. In contrast to its bigger brothers, The Dish is just a little, charming movie, showing the first moon landing from a completely unique perspective and portraying the wonders of the Apollo missions in a much more human and heartfelt way. To cite its predecessor The Castle: "It's the vibe!"
The Dish was first released on DVD in Australia in March 2001 by Village Roadshow with many interesting and fascinating extras, while the American release from Warner coming in October only contained a trailer and omitted all other bonus materials. Only the British version, released in November 2001, had all the extras from the Australian disc plus an additional interview with Sam Neill. There is also a German disc from distributor Highlight, which came in March 2002 almost a year after the original Australian DVD, but it also lacked some of the more important extras like the second commentary. Some of the releases had been out of print for quite a while, but are now all available again. Recommended are either the Australian or the British discs for the complete bonus materials.
The DVD reviewed in this article is the original Australian release from Roadshow Entertainment and while it is now more than a decade old, it still can still hold its ground. Although the film transfer is not as detailed as on the American Warner release, it has the correct warm colour timing and the bonus materials speaks for itself: two entertaining commentary tracks jam-packed with information, over one hour of historic documentary archive material and much more are on this disc, which even until today remains one of the best of its kind.
There is no Blu-Ray of the movie available at the moment and there seem to be no announcements of a planned high-definition release anywhere.
The Australian DVD of The Dish from Roadshow Entertainment contains an immense amount of extras which even more than a decade after its release puts many newer discs to shame - what the filmmakers have compiled in collaboration with the studio is simply astonishing. The menu design looks very simple on first glance, but is actually very well structured.
The Dish on The Dish (11:20) is more than just a short advertising featurette. In addition to a few short and well-chosen film clips and a look behind the scenes, the filmmakers and actors talk about the development, production and background of the movie. Because of the short runtime, only the most superficial themes are addressed, but it is nevertheless worth watching.
For the Audio Commentaries, the Working Dog team has split into two groups - a good decision, because they have so much to tell that it would have been very crowded with all four members of the group on one track. On the first commentary Rob Sitch and Santo Cilauro are heard, who talk about the direction, production and writing with huge enthusiasm, but there's also much room for humour, anecdotes and the roots of the movie. The second track with Jane Kennedy and Tom Gleisner mostly revolves around the casting, the musical choices, the archive material and many other things, but never fully overlaps with the first track. It simply can't get any better than these two audio commentaries: informative, funny and constantly amazing. The filmmakers, who are wonderful narrators and know how not to bore their listeners, also hardly take a break and talk almost through the whole movie.
Biographies is usually the place on other DVDs for only a few quick lines, but here are fourteen very informative text screens about the careers of the actors and filmmakers.
Trailers contains exactly what it says on the cover, but the actual Trailer (2:32) is not the bone-dry, humourless and demeaning American version, but the much better Australian one together with two equally well-made Television Spots (2x0:31). The Bonus Trailer (2:52) is actually from the predecessor The Castle, but fits perfectly on this DVD. The quality of the trailers is not the best and the movie trailer is even in windowboxed 1.33:1, but here it's the content that counts.
Storyboards is one extra that is especially welcome considering how much is talked about them in the audio commentaries. With 19 screen pages this collection may not be very numerous, but the three-way presentation with a rough draft from the director, a more detailed sketch and a shot of the actual scene makes these storyboards very interesting.
The Stills Gallery contains 42 images, which are a mix of promotion photo, on-set snapshots and a few stills from the movie itself. All photos fill the complete 16:9 frame and are displayed in the best possible quality - something most other DVD galleries never manage.
The Footage we loved but couldn't use (70:35) sounds like a euphemism for "Deleted Scenes", but is actually something much better: it is a well-sorted, extensive collection of all archive material which had been prepared and restored for the movie. Everything important is here: from the famous speeches of John F. Kennedy to news reports about the building of the telescope and much rarely seen NASA footage from the moon landing a lot can be found in twenty different sections. Some of it has been partly used in the movie and is seen here in full length, other material is only available here. This invaluable collection of historic documents is worth the price of the DVD alone and could easily be a documentary by itself. Rob Sitch and Tom Gleisner also made the effort to record a special optional audio commentary for this material - while they do not talk as much as in the main commentary track, but still have many interesting things to talk about. The only problem is the format, because the original 1.33:1 material has been slightly zoomed to 1.45:1 and encoded windowboxed into a 16:9-frame - but the material has also been very well restored and has a surprisingly good quality.
The Hidden Dish looks like the once very popular "White Rabbit"-feature, but is actually a detailed breakdown of the complex title sequence, with the individual elements explained in a special menu on 24 separate pages. Because of the quick succession of cuts, this would not have been possible in a commentary, but this method works very well.
Apollo 11 Diary is another treasure trove of NASA original material, because the short and precise "diary entries" of the moon landing mission are accompanied by altogether twenty minutes of audio clips of the radio communications between Houston and Apollo 13. This is not particularly rare material, but the simple integration into the DVD menu makes it a fascinating extra that uses the possibilities of the medium to its full extend.
Key Dates in Early Human Spaceflight only contains text screens, but these 32 pages give a well-written summary of the beginnings of space flight. All this is of course available on the NASA web pages, but considering this DVD was made at a time when web encyclopedias like Wikipedia were just in their infancies, this special feature has its place on the disc and is a perfect addition to the Apollo 13 Diary.