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The Webfooted Astronomer - May 2001


"The Dish" is a Must-See Film for Astronomy Fans

By Brian Allen

"The Dish" is brought to you by the same crew of folks who created the independent film "The Castle," and tells the true story of the events that made possible the televised lunar landing of the Apollo XI mission in July 1969. The action centers on a 64-meter, 1000-ton radio telescope located in the middle of a sheep field in rural Parkes, New South Wales, Australia. It was the most powerful such instrument in the Southern Hemisphere at the time, and NASA asked Parkes for assistance as part of their Apollo mission communications network in late 1968. Parkes agreed.

Sam Neill plays Observatory Director Cliff Buxton, a calm in the storm that eventually envelops Parkes as the film progresses. Al Burnett (played by Patrick Warburton, who Seinfeld fans will recognize as Elaine's on-again off-again boyfriend) is the very matter-of-fact NASA engineer assigned to support the mission onsite, to the chagrin of Antenna Operator Mitch (Kevin Harrington).

One of several romantic sub-plots is centered on Glenn (Tom Long), the smart but shy support technician who runs the computer that calculates where to point the dish in order to receive Apollo's signal. Originally assigned to provide a back up to California's Goldstone facility, the crew at the Parkes telescope encounter mishaps and personality conflicts as Apollo XI gradually makes its way to the moon. A last-minute change in the moon-walk schedule catapults Parkes into the primary role for relaying the video transmission of Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon, and the rest is history.

"The Dish" provides a wealth of fun characters throughout the movie, from quick glimpses of the people of Parkes to the ever-present mayor (Roy Billing), the visiting Australian Prime Minister (Bille Brown) and the U.S. Ambassador (John McMartin).

What's appealing about the film is that it nicely presents some old-fashioned, feel-good themes of achievement and courage against a small-town backdrop, while managing not to go over the top with it. By using actual video footage and audio feeds from the Apollo XI mission, Director Rob Sitch deftly brings Apollo in and out of the background in a way that doesn't overpower the central characters as he moves us towards the moonwalk itself.

Resist the urge to check out the official Parkes observatory site ( before you see the movie. But once you have, do make a point of surfing there to learn more from their considerable archives as you contemplate where you were, and what you were doing, when man first set foot on the moon.

"The Dish," Australian, 1hr. 41min., PG-13. As of March 17 limited U.S. release. Nationwide release April 27.

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