I started smiling ten minutes after the movie began, and didn’t stop until ten minutes after it ended. What a delight! I cannot resist saying that this “dish” is delicious.
It’s about one part of the race to the moon that Tom Hanks didn’t cover in his superb miniseries. It turns out that the United States had the technology and the resources to send astronauts to the moon, but it did not have the position on the planet necessary to broadcast pictures of that historic event back to the 300 million people who would be watching. That broadcast had to come from the Southern Hemisphere. So NASA sent a scientist to Parkes, Australia, a remote town with the world’s biggest satellite dish in the middle of a sheep paddock.
At first, the NASA scientist, Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton) and the three on-site engineers are suspicious of each other. But benign leader Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill), tempermental “Mitch” Mitchell (Kevin Harrington) and shy Glenn Latham (Tom Long) are drawn together by mutual respect and by awe at “science’s chance to be daring.” They are thrilled about being a part of the incredible adventure of a trip to the moon. But they are also shaken by the responsibility.
The town of Parkes is also a little overwhelmed by the visibility. All of a sudden, a town no one ever paid any attention to is being visited by dignitaries and the press, and that creates opportunities for all kinds of upheaval, presided over by the mayor, whose political ambitions are significant, but nowhere near as important as his ability to get real joy from his wife and from what is going on all around him.
The Prime Minister and the American ambassador are coming to town and must be duly celebrated. All goes pretty well, with a few hitches like a sulky teenager and a small confusion between the “Star Spangled Banner” and the theme song from “Hawaii Five-O.”
The real problem arises when Parkes, selected as the site for the dish because of its stable weather conditions, is subjected to high winds just at the time its position needs to be most precisely calibrated. We all know what happened, but that does not interfere with the pleasure of seeing how it happened.
The movie features dozens of sharply but observed moments and delightfully quirky characters including a dim security guard, a military-obsessed teenager with a crush on the mayor’s daughter, and the engineers themselves. Warburton, best known as Puddy on “Seinfeld” and as one of the highlights of last year’s “The Emperor’s New Groove,” is sheer pleasure to watch as the straight-laced NASA representative. Tom Long is marvelous as an engineer who can catch the errors in the NASA specifications but who can never quite get up the nerve to ask out the girl who delivers the sandwiches. Sam Neill’s comfort in being back home in Australia comes through in his warm portrayal of a man who had to be reminded to be excited about the trip to the moon, but who understood that all they needed in the contract with NASA was “we agree to support the Apollo 11 mission.”
Parents should know that there is brief strong language, social drinking and smoking, and some tension.
Families who see this movie should talk about the decisions that the engineers faced, including the decision to lie to NASA. Was that the right thing to do? Why or why not? What did it mean when Cliff told Glenn that “failure is never quite so frightening as regret?” Was he talking about more than one thing? Watch how the engineers respond to problems. What questions do they ask? How do they evaluate their options? How did Al and the Australians learn to trust each other?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Apollo 13,” with Tom Hanks, and Hanks’ superb miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon.”