This was the top-grossing Australian film of 2000. The next four, in order, were The Wog Boy, Looking for Alibrandi, Chopper
and Me Myself I. It's a gentle little film with lots of warmth and self-deprecating humour, telling the story of how Australia's Parkes Observatory helped relay the TV pictures from the Apollo 11 moon landings back to Earth in 1969. That's not exactly the most glamorous role in the mission, but this was an endeavour that gripped the entire world and someone here cites an estimated audience of 600 million viewers. The eyes of the world were, literally, on the Parkes Observatory.
That's the set-up. The film is loosely based on real life, but by all accounts it's taken plenty of liberties even by movie standards. True things in the film include:
(a) Parkes did receive and pass on the TV images of the moonwalks
(b) there were indeed high winds that day
(c) NASA was perfectly capable of making mistakes as described, e.g. the upside-down coordinates
(d) the control room set is so realistic that people who actually worked there in 1969 described it as like walking into a time warp. Some of the "props" included real NASA equipment left over from the time of the Apollo 11 mission.
However things that were invented or distorted include characters' names, the power failure, the animosity with visiting Americans, the Prime Minister's visit, the size of the team involved, the nature of the congratulatory telegram, the level of preparation and quality control, the role of the Honeysuckle Creek dish and the involvement of Madrid. So in other words, quite a bit. This is an entertaining and often funny film that feels true, but it isn't. People who were involved in what happened aren't exactly angry, but one or two of them seem perhaps a little miffed that the filmmakers played so fast and loose with the truth. However that doesn't mean you can't watch it and enjoy it.
What it's about, I think, is pride. In a good way. There are lots of emotions rushing around in Parkes at that time, with another crucial one being fear of failure, but pride is the most important. This dish in the middle of a sheep paddock in the arse end of nowhere is helping to make possible the most daring and imagination-grabbing scientific feat in the history of mankind. The children are proud. The politician who got the dish built in the first place is as pleased as punch, especially since some people said it was a bit of a dodgy thing to put up in the first place. The observatory staff are proud, although also nervous. There's a bit of prickliness when an American shows up, basically because one of the locals hasn't brushed the chips off his shoulder. Hell, the proudest of them all might be the over-eager security guard, who's found himself a gun and is going to guard the living daylights out of his Parkes Observatory even if the only threat to it is sheep. He's hilarious. Seriously, you could give this guy his own movie.
Sometimes this pride's misplaced, mind you. The American can set the Australians right on a few misconceptions they have about NASA, for instance. However it's interesting to note that he'd backed them in their earlier craziness despite having a more accurate perspective on their situation. That's a good man to know.
However as well as all that, the film's very Australian. It's always quick to have a laugh at itself. The staff play cricket on the dish, which would never have happened in real life but still feels right. The musicians don't know the American national anthem. They can't spell "Prime Minister". Two-thirds of the observatory's staff could, in their way, be called idiots. Believe it or not, all this is rather lovely. They're aware of the weight of what's happening and they're not underselling anyone's emotions, but they're doing it in a gentle way that finds the little things funny.
The only actor I'd heard of was Sam Neill as the observatory director, but I liked him better here than in anything else I've seen him in to date. He's an understated actor, so he's perhaps at his best in a gentle film like this. He's lovely. However all the other actors are perfect too, with for instance the observatory geek being hilarious (and a little thematic counterpoint) in his hesitant attempts to emerge from his shell with a girl. I had no complaints with anyone. They're all nailing the film's laid-back emotion.
Perhaps my favourite thing about the film, despite its liberties with historical accuracy, is how I felt it was taking me back to 1969. (No, that's not true. What I like best about the film is its heart and emotion. However the historical perspective is definitely up there.) Regardless of what really happened in Parkes around then, the film really captures a sense that this is something that's grabbed the entire world. Small boys know more about what's happening than TV announcers. Middle-aged ladies explain astrophysics to each other by analogy with basketballs. There's something awesome about the silence as everyone is riveted to the launch from the Kennedy Space Center on TV, to such an extent that I was disappointed by the obligatory music over the similar scenes of the moonwalk. The film really takes you back there and you feel what it means to broadcast those images. That was kind of beautiful.
It's a sweet film. Rob Sitch and Michael Hirsh had previously made a very successful 1997 comedy, The Castle, and this is a good'un too. It makes you feel good. It loves its characters and cares about them. It's taking an incident that's not big according to the history books and showing that in the day, it mattered.