Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 08/15/03 13:56:44

"Reel people, not real people"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Newsfront tells of a newsreel reporter, Len Maguire (Bill Hunter), in an episodic tale spanning the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. Director Phillip Noyce and the various screenwriters (Bob Ellis, Noyce, David Elfick and Philippe Mora) tell Maguire’s story against a backdrop of historical events covered by newsreels of the period.

Maguire has a brother (Gerard Kennedy) working for the rival newsreel company who competes with him and then “sells out” by heading to Hollywood to make his fortune. Maguire marries, with no warning, Fay (Angela Punch in a scrunched-up face performance) who turns out to be a more conservative Catholic than he expected. So Len carries on an affair with the liberated Amy (Wendy Hughes) from the studio. Both female characters are underwritten, leaving the actresses struggling for something to sink their teeth into.

At the studio, we meet a host of Maguire’s co-workers. Best of all is Chris Haywood as his soundman, a convincingly plucky lad out from England to make his fortune. Unfortunately, like the equally episodic Caddie, Newsfront suffers from “disappearing character syndrome”. Just when a character shows potential for development, they’re gone (Bryan Brown’s left wing editor also falls into this category). There’s been no time to establish most of them properly so the effect is disruptive and disconcerting.

There are simply too many happenings and subsidiary characters in Newsfront for Noyce to do them justice. Even Bill Hunter’s celebrated lead performance seems a superficial representation of an idealistic man. We deduce that Maguire’s all about loyalty and the decent thing to do, not sufficiently through his actions but because he tells people that’s what’s important.

Symptomatic of the film itself, he presents the big picture and the unimportant characteristics and details effectively, but at the expense of providing much depth. Newsfront isn’t a celebration of a man or his life, because we don’t have enough feeling for who he is beyond an abstract ideal, and that ideal isn’t sufficiently or convincingly explicated to be worth celebrating.

The screenplay overdoses on Australian slang - “tiger”, “bite your bum”, “mate” - that comes out of a phrasebook rather than he mouths of real people. There are endless and extraneous jingoistic asides - every line seems to contain exposition elaborating on some trivial aspect of the set or Australian history and culture. Everyone is too busy singing advertising jingles of the time to fully convey their characters. When Maguire’s boss AG (Don Crosby) has a heart attack there’s been no previous buildup to make this seem realistic. It would have had more power if we could see it coming from earlier than the start of the scene.

The technical achievement of mixing old newsreel footage with period recreation is superbly realised, as is the film’s Maitland floods set piece. But I was confused by the seemingly erratic shifts from colour to black and white and back again (presumably necessitated by having to integrate black and white newsreel footage). I think the domestic scenes are mostly colour, but there’s no obvious thematic reason for the transformations and they often seem unrelated to what’s occurring on screen.

Ambition wins out over cohesion in Newsfront. The film lurches from home-life drama to sporting competition to office politics to governmental crisis haphazardly, without the curious mix of domestic detail and public event ever meshing convincingly. Considering this film’s heady reputation as one of the great Australian films of the 1970s, I was ultimately very disappointed.

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