Hidden Treasures, Guilty Pleasures: The Dish

We assume you’re into home theater because you love movies, so this blog is the first in an on and off series of movie (and possibly TV-series) recommendations. I first wanted to dub them “Hidden Treasures and Guilty Pleasures.” But while I liked the alliteration, it was too long for a headline so I’ll have to settle for alternating between the two, as appropriate. [Ed. note: We worked a little magic to make the head fit.]

I have a broad taste in movies, from historical to science fiction and a lot in between. I’m not big on crime dramas, grisly horror movies (unless the sci-fi elements outweigh the gore, as in Alien and Aliens), or gross comedies that make me squirm more than laugh. But almost anything else is fair game. The Dish isn’t a story about Hollywood gossip, but rather an Australian film about a 100-ton satellite communications dish parked in a sheep paddock near the small town of Parkes in the rural Down Under. If that sounds boring, it’s anything but.

It’s July 1969, and the first manned moon landing is imminent. The primary tracking dish is at the Goldstone complex in California, but NASA also needs backup in the southern hemisphere. Parkes’ facility is chosen because it has the largest such facility below the equator. As it turns out its role becomes critical. Yes, there are some minor fictional liberties taken with the events depicted here, but the movies never let that get in the way of a good story.

This isn’t one of those blockbusters like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 that deal first-hand with the epic events surrounding the American space program in an era when we dreamed bigger dreams. Instead, it weaves its gentle laughs around this historic event largely from the point of view of a small Australian town with a big dish. But if you’re old enough to have witnessed the first moonwalk on your parents’ black and white television, you’ll also find the film not just hilarious but surprisingly moving as well.

Five of the featured characters work at the facility itself. Cliff is the main man, or “Dish Master,” played by Sam Neill, proving that he can do a lot more than just dance with dinosaurs; Al (Patrick Warburton) is the all-business NASA representative; Mitch is the engineer who handles all of the dish’s mechanicals; Rudy is the local, temp rent-a guard who’s constantly trying, with only fitful success, to appear strictly professional; and Glenn is a bright young scientist who’s nevertheless slow on the humor uptake and also hopelessly smitten by the prettiest girl in town—but afraid to ask her out. There’s also Parkes’ kooky but loveable mayor and his family, including their would-be 60’s radical teen-age daughter who scorns a local, gung-ho military cadet and asks if the mission is being funded by the CIA. To which Al answers, “not entirely”!

Unfortunately this 2000 film has never made it onto Blu-ray, so you’ll have to be content with the DVD (or a download if you can find one). But that’s no major impediment. The DVD may lack the crisp detail of a Blu-ray, but it’s a very good transfer nevertheless. And the soundtrack is an audio treat full of 60’s pop tunes supplemented by an excellent orchestral score. There’s not much in the way of demo-worthy audio effects here, however, except in a tense sequence when the dish is buffeted by unexpectedly high winds.

The supplements are essentially nonexistent, apart from a trailer. Don’t watch the latter first—it spoils the film’s biggest gag. Some of the humor here is so subtle that you’ll miss it the first time around. But that’s no problem; I can almost guarantee that you’ll be watching The Dish more than once.

olderbutbolder's picture

GREAT little movie: full of subtle pleasures. Reminds me of my all time favourite: Local Hero. Same sort of movie but with even better music : Mark Knopfler !