Stars: *** 1/2
Rating: PG-13 for language
Run Time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
I haven’t felt this awash in nostalgia since I swooned over Josh Hartnett’s hunky Trip Fontaine in last year’s “The Virgin Suicides”. The object of my wistfulness isn’t a hormonal high-schooler, however. It’s a 210-ft. diameter radar telescope, (the “dish”) set in the middle of a sheep pasture in the sleepy Australian town of Parkes.
It’s July, the summer of 1969, and man is scheduled for a walk on the moon. Houston has grand plans, with NASA employees working triple-time to coordinate Apollo 11’s walk and the world’s accessibility to the visuals. Parkes slips into the act through the back door, by virtue of housing the largest satellite dish in the Southern Hemisphere in their backyard, thus best able to transmit live pictures of Neil Armstrong’s first historic step for man, and leap for mankind.
But NASA isn’t taking any chances. To join the tiny professional unit of radio astrophysicists who inhabit the cramped control room of Parkes’ powerful receiver, NASA dispatches one of their own, Al Burnett (Patrick Wharburton), to oversee operations. The resentment from the group, Cliff (Sam Neill), Mitch (Kevin Harrington), and Glenn (Tom Long), is palpable. Being that this is a kinder, gentler time, antipathy is kept at a medium simmer, with intermittent sparks. Meanwhile, in Parkes proper, the mayor and his wife are atwitter about the anticipated arrival of Australia’s Prime Minister, who intends to be on hand for the momentous occasion.
Historical comedy is a difficult genre to get right, but this is the goods. Rural Australian sensibilities meet big boy U.S. bravado. Quirky townsfolk exhibiting their eccentricities, while orbiting the large-scale incident that has galvanized their town. Small moments, bigger moments, and an adequate sense of just so. Authentic moonwalk and missile footage is a thrilling blast from the past, evoking a more supportive, determined decade. Late sixties tunes, (“Classical Gas”, “Get Together”), inspire a reflective welling of tears. That feel-good aura, hovering over all, can’t be beat.