With its wealth of archival news footage seamlessly integrated into an absorbing period drama, Philip Noyce’s 1978 feature debut, Newsfront, can rightly be lauded as a milestone of Australian cinema. Boasting a cast of the highest calibre – a mix of emerging heavyweights and fresh faces about to make their mark – it casts venerable light on the tireless work undertaken behind the scenes of news reporting in the 1940’s and ‘50’s.
The film opens in black and white with footage from historic newsreels, including Chico Marx leading troops through a rendition of Waltzing Matilda; following is a press conference with Prime Minister Ben Chifley and the newsmen, whose task requires them to track the most noteworthy stories down, setting up their positions. For the first of many times, Noyce conveys the sense of opening a time capsule and placing fictional figures in the midst of historical events. We meet the head cameraman for leading newsmakers Cinetone, Len Maguire (Bill Hunter), and his assistant, a recently emigrated young Englishman, Chris Hewitt (Chris Haywood). On the other side of the fence is rival Charlie (John Ewart), star cameraman for Newsco, who’s nearing fifty, with battles aplenty in the field behind him and the scars to prove it.
Though the two companies are competing for the same audience in cinemas across the land, an affectionate camaraderie exists between them. Instead of hurled insults there are tender reproaches, an unspoken credo of men united in a common cause. Both sides even socialize together without any awkwardness, the sentiment of a singular purpose uniting them in the face of social upheaval. Grounded in reality these men barely conform to any fictional identity, and the clever insertion of footage from so many key events shaping an evolving nation provides the film with almost documentary-like dimensions to validate them further.
The only bone of lustful contention comes in the form of Cinetone employee, Amy Mackenzie (Wendy Hughes); Len has designs on her but she remains the casual interest of his brother Frank (Gerard Kennedy) who keeps her at arm’s length and happens to be Newsco’s amiable head honcho. Once on the same side, Frank has ascended the ranks of Cinetone’s chief rival and now harbours ambitions of reaching an international audience. With adequate funding to achieve it, he heads for America in a whirlwind move, leaving Len to his humble devotions and a crestfallen but philosophical Amy behind. Len has his own fledgling marriage to Fay (Angela Punch-McGregor) to contend with, one soon soured by her remoteness and his own wandering eye. Len is indifferent to her religious devotions too, creating a potentially irreconcilable rift.
The edges between fiction and reality are effectively blurred by the sleek, uncluttered screenplay on which Noyce collaborated with Bob Ellis; there’s not a single rough transition between the two time-frames, even when the recreation of the era switches from black and white to colour, as it does on numerous occasions. History serves the quiet heroism and dignity of these men well, amassing the footage that Australians, in the pre-television dawn, became dependant on for contact with the rest of the country; crucial too were the social issues encroaching upon news headlines as we evolved through another important change of government and a wave of anti-communism which sparked a national referendum. Especially memorable is the brilliantly evoked Maitland floods of ’55, a sequence in which Noyce’s footage feels every bit as bona fide as the original black and white vision of the time. As the late 40’s and 50’s are negotiated with subtle fast-forwards, the threat of television suddenly looms large for both sides, but the integrity of these men is never undermined by a lack of commitment or motivation to serve public need above all else.
Hunter’s overpowering presence holds every scene captive to his laconic, distinctly Australian authenticity; given the rare opportunity to shrug off colourful character roles for a lead, he thrives; there’s genuine poignancy in many domestic scenes that might have easily been supplanted by mawkishness with a little less refinement. He’s a highly sympathetic central figure, despite his brother’s assertion that he’s the perfect company man – loyal and unambitious. The emerging Hayward offers occasional comic respite at Len’s side whilst Hughes is luminous, as ever, whether captured in colour or monochrome by Vincent Monton’s intuitive camerawork. A young Bryan Brown has a decent supporting role too as a headstrong, politically-motivated editor; in fact, not a single bit player hits so much as a wrong note under Noyce’s assured direction.
Rich with historical context and believable characterisations, Newsfront is a dramatic success on every level; a telling tribute to the work of Australians in an important era of media relations and the way we finally began accessing the world through a wholly visual medium. A sparkling, auspicious debut for Noyce – who would be Hollywood-bound a decade later in the wake of the commercially successful Dead Calm (1989) – Newsfront remains a landmark film from the Golden Age of our cinema’s history.