Some films do well due to huge publicity and enviable hype – these are the films where, even if they get a critical backlash and are publicly disliked, still get an audience, and make more money than most filmmakers would dream of (even if they don't recoup their costs.
The Dish is not such a film. It's small, Australian, and utterly fabulous. It got good reviews, but most of its success probably came from word of mouth. I found myself going to see it because an Australian and an American cornered me online and insisted that I had to see it.
I didn't regret it. Simply put, it's based on the true story of three Australian blokes who work at 'The Dish' – a radio-telescope - pottering around, doing their jobs, and playing cricket on the dish during their lunch breaks. Then they're co-opted into NASA's Apollo 11 mission, responsible for keeping track of the mission and filming the moon landing. Along the way there are the inevitable problems, an uptight NASA man who's there to help them out, a power cut, and high winds. Meanwhile, the town of Parkes, where the dish is situated, is preparing to celebrate its role in history.
The above synopsis doesn't really do justice to the film, but take it from me: it is hilariously funny in a very subtle manner, compelling, and moving. The cast are uniformly magnificent – even the ex-Neighbours star, playing the sweet Janine, works wonderfully. The
obvious star is Sam Neill, playing Cliff, the paterfamilias of the Dish, or as he styles it, 'director' of the operation. The character is a naturally calm man, still mourning the loss of his wife, who is sitting on his excitement at the prospect of being involved in the mission. His colleagues at the installation are a mixed bunch: Mitch, the very voluble, very blunt bloke who manoeuvres the dish; Glenn, the adorably geeky computer operator who stumbles over his liking for Janine throughout the film, and Al, the guy from NASA who's a bit uptight about it all. Behind them lie the townspeople of Parkes, a wild assortment of colourful characters all desperate for things to run smoothly.
Running at just over an hour and a half the film is very compact, but nothing is lacking – impressive considering that the film was made by a group of four collaborators. It also happens to have a fantastic soundtrack. The Dish focus' very much on the events and personalities at the telescope and in the town, yet never loses sight of the bigger picture – the amazing trip to the moon.
The DVD disc for The Dish is like the film, small yet perfectly formed. It is in fact a lesson to all those people putting together DVD packages in the future, there may only be one disc, yet it is jam-packed with goodies, not one thing that is just filler. There are the standard cast and crew biographies, and trailers, plus commentaries, a small featurettes, NASA footage, and – for the Region 2 disc – an interview with Sam Neill. Additionally, for the budding directors there are storyboards from a couple of scenes from the film, which show the original storyboard next to the corresponding still from the film.
The archival footage from NASA is fascinating. Firstly 'The Dish on The Dish' as it is called: during the opening montage of shots from NASA's programmes, you can click on the dish in the bottom corner of the screen, and be taken to a series of screen caps from the montage each with a small bit of information about the event being shown. There are also longer excerpts of footage – some extended from the opening scene, and some others – giving a wider picture of the space program. These can be watched in their original form, or with a
commentary from two of the creators of the film – director Rob Sitch and writer/producer Tom Gleisner – giving information about the way in which they used the NASA footage. There are also a diary of the Apollo 11 mission, giving a brief day-by-day account of the trip, and a timeline of the main events of the space race.
The two commentaries and the featurette all cover similar ground, but there is surprisingly little overlap. The featurette is only short, and has the major cast members and crew reminiscing about making the film. As with all such featurettes it is in essence something of a
love-in, where everyone pays each other compliments and talks about how wonderful it is. However, a tiny section of it deals with the music of the film, and the ways in which the filmmakers tried to make the dish look impressive. One of the commentaries is by the creators Rob Sitch and Santo Clauro who were responsible for the direction of the film, and they focus on the actual shooting of The Dish. The other is by the remaining creators, Gleisner and Jane Kennedy, and they focus more on the overview of the production – including the casting and the music. Both are well worth a viewing, interesting, funny and unassuming.
The DVD as an entirety is a must-have. The film is a small gem, easily re-watchable, and the extras package more than does it justice. They add interest to The Dish, while not feeling the need to overpower, or compensate for any failings in the film.