Australian cinema has never really gotten the respect it deserves. Anyone whose seen exceptional examples of the nation's visual arts - from Mad Dog Morgan and Bad Boy Bubby to Starstruck and My Brilliant Career (just to name a few) understands the dilemma. Having to constantly battle for prominence with their English-speaking brethren in the UK and USA, Down Under auteurs face a decidedly uphill battle. Thanks to DVD distributor Blue Underground, however, a lot of these lost classics are finally seeing the legitimate light of day. One such stellar example is Phillip Noyce's novel Newsfront. This 1978 drama about the Australian newsreel industry is a wonderfully reflective period piece about a country growing up, and the visual pains that went along with such a mighty maturation.
Len Maguire is a newsreel cameraman for the Cinetone Company. Along with assistant Chris Hewitt, he travels the Australian countryside, capturing stories for the weekly film features. His brother, the suave - and somewhat shady - Ken works for competitor News Co International. This unfriendly family rivalry is a matter of bitter disappointment for Len. He values loyalty and fidelity, and sees his sibling's switch as the ultimate insult. As the years pass by, Len falls into his work, to the detriment of everything else. He marries, but is quickly off to bush fires and flood zones to capture the action. Ken, keeping company with Cinetone employee Amy Mackenzie, decides to leave for America. As TV looms in the distance, film journalism is threatened. Len believes there will always be a place for his kind of reporting. But Ken is not so sure. With the advent of the cathode ray tube, people no longer need to head to the local Bijou to get the headlines. The Newsfront has moved from the cinema to the living room, rendering men like Len dinosaurs of a dying era.
Part historical overview, part cracking competent kitchen sink drama, Newsfront represents a kind of period pinnacle for the late 70s renaissance in Australian filmmaking. Phillip Noyce, a director who would go on to have international success with Dead Calm (1989), Clear and Present Danger (1994) and Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) appears very comfortable telling this wholesome, homespun tale about the native newsreel cameramen who provided Aussies with their most reliable source of information - pre-TV, that is. Using an intriguing blend of history and fiction, along with a visually arresting set of monochrome and ersatz Technicolor tenets, Newfront attempts to recall a specific era in Down Under identity development, as well as deconstructing and de-mystifying the way in which this new national image occurred.
That Noyce succeeds is not the headline here. He is a filmmaker of decided skill and exceptional scope. No, what's more fascinating about this amazing movie is how we, the ignorant foreign viewer with little or no knowledge of the region or its legacy, get immediately caught up in the social and political climate of Australia in the 50s. Part of the reason is in the moviemaking itself. There is a wistful, near-reverent tone for the old Australia, a country battling itself for a sense of place in the world. Noyce seems to understand implicitly what his homeland went through post-World War II, and makes even the most minor detail come alive onscreen. In addition, he colors our own growing understanding with several sensational sequences taken directly from the actual newsreel footage captured by the very individuals he is celebrating.
Indeed, one of Newsfront's most effective conceits is how effortlessly Noyce incorporates the real newsreel scenes into the film. It gives us an instant "you are there" feel to the events playing out. Seamlessly matching the black and white starkness of the archival material, we are transported back in time to witness seminal moments in Australian history as most native citizens saw it. When he has to recreate a setting - say, the flooding of Maitland - the staged sequences mesh perfectly with the authentic visuals, keeping the realism and authenticity palpable.
Same goes for a famous Australian cross country race. Comparing the real race sequences with the ones "created" for the film, you really can't tell where one ends and the other begins. Even the actors have a certain nostalgic gravity to them. Both Bill Hunter (as Len) and Gerard Kennedy (as Ken) look like middle-aged men of the post-war era. They wear their world-weary experience all over their occasionally fractured features. Indeed, everyone here, from a young Bryan Brown (as an idealistic editor) to a cocky Chris Haywood (as Len's British assistant) look like individuals indicative of the time and place.
Yet for all its cinematic daring do and detailed recreation, this is not a rip-roaring action adventure. You will never mistake Len for Indiana Jones, or his fireplug competitor at News Co International (a permanently pissed-off John Ewart) as a graceful bon vivant. One of the themes Noyce wants to illustrate is the workaday way in which these otherwise innovative and risk-taking moviemakers plied their craft. Len is a typical man's man, unable to really connect with the women in his life because he doesn't see how their attachments help his career. For him, the world is the shoot, the chance to capture reality and bring it to the people. He doesn't connect with individuals. He connects with images.
Ken is the same - he's just more obvious about his interpersonal brush-offs. For him, the medium is more important than the messes that come with family and friends. All throughout the narrative, Noyce hints at the dedication and camaraderie between the men - even those competing for the same story - and argues that the real families in the film were not between brother and brother, or husband and wife, but between proud, production professionals. The spouses and babies, girlfriends and conquests are just part of the territory, as moveable and interchangeable as the locales where the news occurs.
Loneliness and isolation are not the only significant subtexts here. Australia battled against a raging Communist influence during the 50s, and similar to the way in which the US fought this unseen 'Red Menace', the Aussie headlines are full of stories centering on referendums, abuses of power by the Prime Minister and charges of internal censorship among the newsreel companies. Noyce doesn't dwell on these issues so much as use them as fancy trimmings to what is already an engaging and entertaining film. They help us see how a relatively remote nation suddenly found itself, post-international conflict, losing the naiveté it so richly protected before.
True, there will be those who find this movie a bit too deliberately paced, somewhat scattered in its storytelling, and rather anti-climactic in its finale (Len's response to Ken's callous proposition doesn't have a lot of dramatic zing). Still, all sober and somber vignette stylings aside, this is a fascinating film made even more memorable by the inclusion of actual Australian newsreel footage. Not only do we get the artistic interpretation of events from the time period, but we get the actual substance itself. If you like history unfettered by pontification and pomp, if you've yet to give the Down Under cinema a fair shake, Newsfront is a fine place to start. It proves that the Aussies could more than hold their own with their far more famous filmmaking family - it's just that no one gave them a fair shot at the arena - until now.
As they have done in the past, Blue Underground delivers another consistently near-perfect print of this film. One would think the cross-cutting between black and white and color would be problematic, but the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is solid. The pigments are captured perfectly, the lighting looks amazing, the landscapes dazzle and the contrasts are clear and crisp. While some may think the movie a bit faded, this actually appears to be part of the atmosphere of the movie. The nostalgic flavor of the film allows for a kind of misty, gauzy gaze backward, and Newsfront captures this cinematic concept expertly.
The sonic situation here is equally excellent. A newly remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 mix adds a lot of atmosphere to what is essentially a dialogue-driven film. While the speakers do not get a major channel-to-channel workout (except during the race and flood sequences), the tone and ambiance of the soundtrack lend a great deal of spatial authenticity to the viewing experience. There is a decent 2.0 Surround version of the soundtrack, but stick with the 5.1. It makes the movie that much more memorable.
Blue Underground does its typically terrific job fleshing out the added features for Newsfront's DVD release. Indeed, there is an excellent balance between visual offerings and DVD-Rom based bonus features. On the disc drive front, we are treated to a study guide, a series of reviews for the film (some are a marvelous read and add a lot of insight into the storyline) a look at the restoration process and a selection of production notes. While most Rom offerings can be minimal, the one's offered by The Big Blue U are great.
So is the standard contextual material. "The Newsfront Story" is a text-based look at the film's history, concluding with a look at the Australian Academy Awards (where the film cleaned up, winning in eight categories). "The Last Newsreel" is an innovative infomercial from Australia showing the country's concerted efforts to preserve their film journalism heritage. Rendered like the old time Movietone material itself, it is hilarious and heartfelt. The best extra, though, is the wonderfully dense and entertaining commentary track for the film. It features several of the cast and crew, including Noyce, screenwriter Bob Ellis, producer David Elfick, and actors Bill Hunter and Wendy Hughes (who played Ken's girl, Amy), among others. Informative, detailed and filled with funny anecdotes (including Hunter's rough and tumble recollections) this is an incredibly entertaining supplement to what is a very good cinematic experience to begin with.
Though it won't connect with everyone, Newsfront is still a wonderfully evocative, expertly mounted motion picture experience. It is Highly Recommended, not just as a brief overview of post-WWII Australian history, but for its depiction of those who helped chart that historic coarse. Between the personalities and the perils, the triumphs and the tragedies, we learn that cameramen created the view of the world long before the small screen tantalized and tricked us. With celluloid, the planet looked far more perplexing, but it also had a deeper permanence than the fleeting images scattered across a TV set. The men who managed to capture these images deserve a great deal of credit for their dedication and their desire. They have no bigger champion than this excellent motion picture.
Want more Gibron Goodness?
Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here