Offering a nostalgic but tart look at the period in media history when theatrical newsreels gave way to television coverage, the handsomely crafted Newsfront also includes a litany of important Australian events from the years 1948 to 1956. A similar story could have been told about nearly any developed nation, but the rugged Australian setting fits this specific narrative about an old-fashioned cinematographer who resists change. In addition to making his feature debut, Aussie director Philip Noyce cowrote the script, which dramatizes social and technological changes by juxtaposing the experiences of stubborn Len Maguire with those of his comparatively easygoing younger brother, Frank. Yet the Len/Frank saga is just one of many storylines.
Deliberately episodic, since actual Australian newsreels are woven into the story, Newsfront unfolds like a soap opera, with the staffers at two competing newsreel agencies crisscrossing over time. Len evolves from the cocky daredevil who’ll do anything for a shot to the embittered veteran who gets scolded for playing it safe. Along the way, he changes wives, loses friends to tragedy, and proudly supports the Communist Party. He’s a thorny choice for a central character. Although Newsfront features several action scenes depicting the risks Len and his peers take to capture footage, the most dynamic vignettes actually occur in mixing studios. It’s fascinating to watch the newsreel teams create soundtracks live—as a director gives cues by hand, a sound technician adjusts the music score and a voice-over actor delivers the purple prose for which newsreels were famous. Newsreel camera technology was the same as that used for fiction films, but this particular mixing process was unique to the newsreel medium.
Generally speaking, the workplace scenes in Newsfront are more effective than the domestic bits, partially because Noyce employs such an understated style, and partially because leading man Bill Hunter (as Len) is supremely stoic. Hunter is cast well, seeing as how Len’s first marriage becomes a casualty of his remoteness, but Hunter never generates much emotional engagement. Costars Chris Haywood (as Len’s apprentice) and Gerard Kennedy (as Len’s brother) are more accessible, and the whole cast is quite good on a technical level. A pre-stardom Bryan Brown plays a small role, and Wendy Hughes offers a striking presence as the woman who gets caught between Frank and Len.
Boasting consistently impressive production values—a sequence involving a flood looks amazing—Newsfront is quite watchable despite its clinical quality and ho-hum ending. Additionally, the movie is noteworthy because it earned a slew of Australian Film Institute awards (the Aussie equivalent to the Oscars), and because it marked a pivotal moment in Noyce’s career. Although the director didn’t achieve a true international breakthrough until helming the taut Nicole Kidman thriller Dead Calm (1989), Noyce subsequently directed numerous big-budget films, including a pair of Jack Ryan adventures and the twin 2002 triumphs Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American.