Australians are as ballsy and friendly and forthright as Americans, only upside down. They live on a great ranch of a continent, as we do, and speak their mind, and love to laugh — only what they seem to laugh at most, to judge from recent strenuously daft and campy comedies like Welcome to Woop Woop and The Castle, are chaps making blinkered boobs of themselves lest they be voted off their own island for taking life too seriously.
It’s a great relief, then, to report that The Dish, from director Rob Sitch and the team who built The Castle (a huge hit Down Under, a pile of rubble here) is funny, not silly. Better than that, really: It’s a lovely, original, Australian take on a climactic moment usually thought of as all-American — when astronauts from Apollo 11 walked on the moon, on July 20, 1969. This is a comedy that knows when to cut up and when to shut up and share hemisphere-uniting awe. It’s the comedy Tom Hanks might produce if he were an Ozzie. In fact, it opens with a Spielbergian image: An old man makes a pilgrimage to a hallowed place, gazes in reverence, and remembers…
In this case, the shrine is a radio-telescope dish, the old man (Sam Neill in latex wrinkles) used to run the place, and Sitch builds his plot on a foundation of truth: The dish in the outback town of Parkes, Australia — then the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere — really was employed to relay televised pictures of Neil Armstrong’s small steps to the entire world, and it was operated by a handful of local techies joined by a man from NASA. Flashing back to that amazing summer, Sitch gently amplifies and magnifies the differences between the ”no worries” casual manner of the humble Parkes crew (with dignified Neill as a cardigan-wearing, pipe-puffing Mr. Rogers sort) and the hyperefficient, horn-rimmed visiting Yank (positioned sweetly by Seinfeld’s Patrick Warburton as a guy who runs a tight ship but isn’t a tight caricature).
The town, of course, has its requisite comedic personages, from the affable, excitable mayor (Roy Billing) to the tippling, visiting prime minister (home-favorite character actor Bille Brown). But Sitch knows that the moment of the breathtaking moon walk itself, the sheer hopefulness and bravery of it, is meant for tears of reverence, not jokes. This is a comedy that rises out of elation, rather than mere wacky gas.