The Guardian November 1, 2000


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.

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