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.
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.
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.