Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Blue Underground has been releasing some of the top films of the Australian cinema boom of the late 1970s, like My Brilliant Career. This 1978 picture is virtually unknown in the United States but won almost every Australian award there is. Using actual stock footage, it tells the interesting story of the last years of the newsreel business in Sydney. The mostly unfamiliar actors are fresh and the story entirely unpredictable.
The lives of a small group of Australian newsfilm cameramen and staffers is examined from directly after WW2 until the late 1950s. Newsco's dedicated top cameraman Len McGuire (Bill Hunter) is breaking in a new man, Chris Hewitt (Chris Haywood). Len's footloose brother Frank (Gerard Kennedy) has already bolted to another company and is considering going to America, leaving his girlfriend Amy Mackenzie (Wendy Hughes) in the lurch. She's carrying on with more than one beau, including ace editor Geoff (Bryan Brown). As the years go on we see the effects on the business of political pressure and economic factors that make Len's loyalty to the grind seem ill advised. His own marriage becomes a disaster when his wife decides on Catholic principles that they can't make love any more - they have too many children already. The hazards of the job take a cost in lives, and it's hard to tell if the effort is worth the risk when Television will render newsreels obsolete.
Newsfront has a sprightly, punchy style reminiscent of old pictures about telephone linemen or air mail pilots. Director Phillip Noyce (Dead Calm, Patriot Games, The Quiet American) turns a small budget to his advantage by cleverly incorporating old newsreel footage into the tale. The movie opens in B&W and only switches to color after the first few minutes, but by then we've accepted that the shots of Len McGuire filming are associated with newsreel clips twenty and thirty years old. An opening montage of raw newsreel footage includes horrendous airplane and auto race accidents and Chico Marx playing "Waltzing Matilda" to a group of Australian soldiers.
The apparent object is to use the Newsco story to present a liberal's view of Australian history after WW2. Australia's Communist and Socialist parties operate in the open, and we see pressure applied to the newsreel companies to offer a conservative view of events. Editor Geoff (played by Bryan Brown, the one really familiar face in the cast) is reprimanded for resisting official policy, and our hero Len is also ostracized for his beliefs. He may seem the complacent company man, but he's one of the few to stand by his principles and politics.
Len's wife is unhappy with the crowding in their small house. A devout Catholic, she expects Len to do without sex. He becomes surly when their priest tries to bully him with conservative political pressure, and the wife's disgusted reaction tells us what poor shape their marriage is in. Len's brother Frank has already run off to America in search of opportunities, leaving his girlfriend Amy free to take up with Len out of mutual attraction. Meanwhile, camera assistant Chris marries a girl he beds on an out-of-town filming trip, after she shows up pregnant at the company offices.
The personal stories develop as the sun sets on the era of the filmed newsreel. The Australian newsreel companies engage in a fierce competition. Bad boy cameraman Charlie Henderson (John Ewart) is not above sabotaging Len by sticking his arm in front of the Newsco camera during a shot. Newsco is unable to afford foreign 'stringers' and compensates by concentrating on domestic subjects that often seem trivial. Standards drop after the death of the company's managing director. Amy is ignored when she objects to Richard Nixon being misidentified in a newsreel narration. Eventually the newsreel companies have to consolidate under the threat of Television, which can put their stories out instantaneously. Fast news in fuzzy video is preferred to quality photography seen a week later. Len is pressured to take risks to get more exciting footage, and new editors dishonestly hype coverage by cutting in stock footage.
The personal stories are kept interesting by the novelty of the situation. Middle-aged and ordinary looking, Len McGuire is an unlikely leading man. We finally decide he's our hero when his stubborn streak reveals an underlying ethical foundation. Len doesn't get rich but finally prevails by being named director for all Australian coverage of the 1960 Olympics. By contrast, his flashy brother Frank goes for the big money in America and ends up frustrated when Len won't sell out Newsco for a payoff. All of these melodramatic events are covered in a breezy, fast moving style that reminds us of 1930s Warner Bros. product - the show even begins with a visual round-up of the top cast members.
Blue Underground presents Newsfront in a sparkling enhanced transfer. Most of the newsfilm is in excellent condition and the audio track is clear as well. Director Noyce, writer Bob Ellis and producer David Elfick contribute a proud commentary track, as Newsfront is the title that put their careers into serious motion. A mock documentary about Newsco is really a public service plea for more newsfilm to be donated to the Australian film archives. An excerpt from the Australian Film Awards program shows American actors Fred MacMurray and Brenda Vaccaro helping to hand the film a near sweep of the top honors. Besides a trailer, a hefty stack of DVD-Rom extras includes a study guide, all of the film's reviews, a document about its restoration and other film related documents.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sound: Excellent English (Dolby Digital 5.1), English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround)
Supplements: Commentary with Writer/Director Phillip Noyce, Writer Bob Ellis and Producer David Elfick; The Last Newsreel; The NEWSFRONT Story; 1978 Australian Film Awards Excerpts; Trailer; DVD-Rom extras: Study Guide, NEWSFRONT Reviews in Depth, The Restoration of NEWSFRONT, Original Assessments for the Production of NEWSFRONT
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 28, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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