Film review by Tom Pearson The Dish
I am always wary of films which start out telling you that "The following is based on a true story". It inevitably means that what follows is the truth twisted and distorted, sometimes beyond recognition, to fit the purposes of the filmmakers. The Dish purports to be a humourous retelling of the part played by Australia in the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. From the time of the film's release its creators, Working Dog Productions, have been on the front foot defending it, as if anticipating a negative reaction. The producers say they chose to focus on the "positive" things and not the "negative" ones. But the most telling criticism of historical inaccuracy has come not from reviewers, who are mostly tickled pink by the movie, but from the technicians who operated the Honeysuckle Creek tracking station near Canberra. The Dish is set mostly in the radio telescope at the NSW country town of Parkes. The Honeysuckle Creek technicians point out that the television images of astronaut Neil Armstrong putting boot on moon came out of their facility and not Parkes, as is shown in the film. What makes this deliberate oversight by the filmmakers notable is that these technicians are the very people they claim their film is intended to hold up as long-neglected Australian heroes; in other words, they have even overturned their own premise in the name of "positive" entertainment. It follows that the historical omissions and distortions range far and wide, and toward this end the politicians are presented as caricature buffoons and the ordinary people as quirky dickheads, all in thrall to the USA. It begins in flashback, with black and white footage of US President Kennedy pledging to land a man on the moon, Kennedy's funeral, the Australian Prime Minister (then John Gorton but here called only "Prime Minister") chatting to Richard Nixon. There's the Mayor of Parkes and his idiot second banana, there's the stereotype teenage girl who delivers baskets of sandwiches to the men operating the telescope (she's a bad driver, of course, and was clearly created for wearing miniskirts, being feminine and giggling). Worse still are two characters which are not only impossible to swallow as comic creations, but who shoot down in flames the "positive" spin that's supposedly driving the whole celluloid project. One is a war-eager, teenage army cadet always in uniform who practices shouldering arms in his back yard. The other is the mayor's daughter, who as a university student is the film's token radical '60s' protester. In a comic exchange the cadet expresses his hero worship of the mayor, a WW2 veteran, and the mayor responds by promising him he's bound to get his very own war opportunity (the word "Vietnam" is never uttered — too negative). The token radical is set up for ridicule throughout, mouthing totally ineffectual statements of defiance ("Dad, if you get in Parliament will you abolish the national draft?" "Anything for you dear." "Dad, it's a political question!") She is finally humiliated into complete submission at the dinner table by her parents, the head of the Parkes team and the NASA representative from the US, who tells her on departing that he respects her. "Do you really?", she simpers. The spoilt and shallow student agitator and the unquestioning, patriotic youth ready to do his duty are the products of the Vietnam War propaganda machine: the Liberal and National Parties will love this version of our history. It is also noteworthy that the NASA man is the only character in the film who is not a buffoon or a quirky dickhead (though he does bear a striking resemblance to the comicbook Superman's alter-ego, Clark Kent). In this way the film defines us as subservient to the US, and not only technologically and militarily. As the telescope chief comments: "NASA is just a bigger bunch of us." Furthermore, despite its cartoonish appearance and attempts at Aussie humour — which anyhow is much more subtle, barbed and insightful than The Dish presents it — this "based on a true story" version of events is bound to be taken as historical fact because, under the thin layer of jokes there is the plodding documentation of "facts", in the guise of dramatic endeavour. Perhaps the philosophy underlying the film determined its fundamentally conservative view:, for all its gadgetry and the scientific nature of its subject, it is anti-scientific. The moon landing is made into a spiritual happening — divine intervention, no less. Religious references abound, including archival footage of the Pope, at first watching the launch on television and then blessing the moon landing, and a packed church in Parkes copping a sermon on God's great universe. The clunky, dated technology is played up as unreliable, giving weight to the idea that something other than science played a hand in the whole thing, something that can only be beyond the physical. God, after all, is on America's side, and America's on ours. It's not possible to talk about the acting individually: the cast do what they can to bring the material alive and manage to get some laughs, but breathing life into characters drawn with the all the depth of cardboard cutouts is expecting too much of anyone. A movie with substance — and humour, if you like — could have been made of that time in 1969. Instead, we've got The Dish; a few thin laughs wrapped around a fabrication.