Directed By: Phillip Noyce
Written By: Bob Ellis, Phillip Noyce
Produced By: David Elfick
Cast: Bill Hunter, Wendy Hughes, Chris Haywood, Gerard Kennedy, John Ewart, Don Crosby
MPAA Rating: PG
Runtime: 110 minutes
Review Date: August 13, 2010
Set in post-World War II Australia, Newsfront chronicles the zenith of the newsreel industry and its subsequent fade away into cultural memory. It also, more tellingly, recalls a time when journalists felt the human story was always more worthwhile than angling for sensationalism.
Spanning from 1948, where the big story is the naturalization of former German citizens, to 1956, when the Olympics were held in Melbourne, the film centers around (the fake) Cinetone News, one of the two major news film outlets operating in Australia.
Len Maguire (Bill Hunter) is the company’s premier cameraman — an underpaid, overworked “company hack,” as his brother Frank (Gerard Kennedy) puts it. Frank has plans to find the American dream, leaving his best girl Amy (Wendy Hughes) behind, while Len later marries Fay (Angela Punch), a conservative Catholic who is regularly embarrassed by her husband’s politics and feels neglected by his dedication to his craft.
Co-writer/director Phillip Noyce and director of photography Vincent Monton switch between black-and-white and color cinematography in each section of the script’s episodic structure. Actual newsreel footage of the period is occasionally mixed into the narrative, including then Vice President Richard Nixon’s arrival to the country (the highest-ranking American official to visit Australia at the time, and mistakenly referred to as “Senator Nixon”), footage of a devastating flood in Maitland, and clips from World War II in which the cameraman records the shot that killed him.
The more momentous incidents are juxtaposed with the relatively banal, as studio narrator Ken (John Dease) puts an ominous tone to the “rabbit menace” and Len and his partner Chris (Chris Haywood) travel around the continent following a race.
The script by Noyce and Bob Ellis (who disowned the resulting film for its supposed Communist sympathies until re-associating himself with it after it won eight Australian Film Institute awards, including one for the screenplay) is delicate with its characters and their interpersonal dramas. The troubles of Len and Fay’s marriage are hinted at early on simply through a phone call in which he explains that he will be coming home late again. The reason behind the turmoil is never spoken outright, but when Chris discovers he has gotten a girl pregnant, Len advises him on the choice between the “right thing” and the “wrong thing” as though it’s something with which he’s very familiar.
Where the film finds its bite is in the political tension growing across the world. The new Prime Minister wants to ban the Communist Party in Australia, leaving Len out in the cold at church, where the pastor is handing out flyers in support of the measure. Len doesn’t associate himself with the party, but he does acknowledge that democracy even protects ideas one might not like. Frank, on the other hand, runs off to America, because even Cinetone’s right-wing general manager (Don Crosby) can’t stand his anti-Communist propaganda. Frank, beyond his work in television, is the new media, and Len cannot abide what he represents.
Politics aside, Newsfront is a love letter to a lost art. Late in the film — after relationships have ended, friends have moved away, and television begins broadcasting events live — some of them sit down to watch a 16mm home movie, and as long as the documents survive, there, trapped in time, is proof that those times and people will never be lost.
Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.