Newsfront (1978)
R0 - America - Blue Underground
Review written by and copyright: Jari Kovalainen (14th January 2008).
The Film

We´re now living in a time when almost everyone can make their own videos. You don´t even need a video camera anymore, since newer mobile phones can replace that. Releasing that video for others to see is just as easy - using the internet-sites like YouTube will give you potentially thousands of viewers. Even millions. Ironically, the problem now is to find something worthwhile to see among the countless videos that are fed to the Internet. We have a huge selection of everything, but less quality. Times were drastically different during the “newsreels”. When there was no television, companies made short news stories and showed them to the local movie theatre. These cinematic shorts were the windows to their country and to the world for the average people. Everything was shot in film via professional cameramen, with the needed care on post-production. Unlike today, quality was often quite excellent, since in that line of business you needed to be on the top of your game. It´s no exaggeration to say that the newsreel cameramen were the unsung heroes of pre-TV days.

After a few short films (including the semi-feature “Backroads (1977)”), Australian director/co-writer Phillip Noyce (e.g. “Patriot Games (1992)” and “The Quiet American (2002)”) made his full directional debut. “Newsfront (1978)” spans the years from 1948 to 1956 - the golden period of the newsreel business in Australia (which has over 70-year history in the country). It focuses on the honest and loyal Leonard “Len” Maguire (Bill Hunter - e.g. “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)”), the newsreel cameraman for the “Cinetone News” company, run by the firm - but fair - General Manager A.G. Marwood (Don Crosby). Len has a minor rivalry with the fellow cameraman Charlie Henderson (John Ewart - e.g. “Razorback (1984)”), who´s working in the firm “Newsco International”, run by Len´s opportunist brother Frank (Gerard Kennedy). Both of the brothers are competing for the hottest news, best material and angles, so Len´s young assistant Chris Hewitt (Chris Haywood - e.g. “Razorback (1984)”) will have the front seat to the heart of the business.

There are also a few strong female characters in the story. Len´s marriage with his Catholic wife Fay (Angela Punch McGregor, as Angela Punch - e.g. “The Island (1980)”) is failing, adding the inner turmoil for Len and tension at home. Amy Mackenzie (Wendy Hughes - e.g. “Return to Eden (1983)” mini-series) is the only female worker in the “Cinetone News” and quite ready to stand on her own feet. She eventually affects the lives of both Maguire brothers. Young Ellie (Lorna Lesley) will steal the heart of Len´s assistant Chris during one of their work assignments. Soon the little country girl moves to the city. The people in the newsreel-community are almost like a family of their own, where you find the whole spectrum of drama, humour, tears and joy.

Since WW2 has quite recently ended when the story begins, the whole nation is facing turbulent times on many fronts. There are political and economical conflicts, uneasiness amongst the people or just tragic events shaping the country. The lead characters are not just filming, editing and narrating these events for the local movie house; they live through them, see and feel them. They often end up having strong opinions of their own, which can affect their job. Radical editor Geoff (Bryan Brown - e.g. “Gorillas in the Mist: The Story of Dian Fossey (1988)”) particularly stirs the atmosphere (still often in a humorous way) in the “Cinetone News” and Len is also capable of swimming upstream against the rising anti-Communist climate. News and their own lives often unite.

Director Phillip Noyce has made a warm and timeless “period piece”, keeping the inner focus on the main characters and letting the vintage newsreels tell the big picture. Often this real news-footage intercuts with the recreated material with actors, when e.g. Len is “filming” the news that you see on the screen (whether it´s the various political figures, 1953 “Redex Round Australia Trial” car race, 1954 Maitland Floods, 1956 Melbourne Olympics - or just small Koala climbing in the tree). You´ll receive a minor history lesson of Australia from that period for the same price and the film is partly B&W (some sections, including the longer “Maitland Floods”-sequence). Cinematographer Vincent Monton keeps the visual look tightly connected to themes of the film, so whether the film is in B&W or in colour, it always feels faithful to the time period (which was the visual goal to begin with).

“Newsfront” has some of the qualities to be a broad and big “epic” (perhaps Baz Luhrmann´s upcoming “Australia (2008)” will take care of that), but it´s actually quite a small and intimate film (partly due to the budget-reasons also, I´m sure). There is humour and sadness, but the film never stays on these themes very long. Like the newsreel-cameramen during that time, the film also moves rather quickly to the next chapter. Still, while the nation might face some hectic times, the characters don´t always have the courage - or need - to truly change. Some leave for America or England, some get re-married, some even die - but eventually the changes are not very dramatic. Underneath, people stay the same and their beliefs with it. The pacing is probably both the strength and weakness of the film, since although the actors are very capable and in most part well chosen, they sometimes fail to deliver the needed emotions for the viewer. You´ll probably find asking the “was that really it?”-type of questions in some of the scenes. Nothing is really wrong, just that something is occasionally missing. The actor Bill Hunter can divide the crowd, since his appearance is not exactly living up to the expression “handsome leading man”. Still, he IS Len - giving the face to one of the main themes in the film; he´s representing the “working class loneliness and solitude”, like it´s put in the audio commentary. He´s not looking like a hero, since Len in the film is not a “hero” in his own mind. Just a man doing his job at 100%; often even more.

“Newsfront” is a very good film and in most parts captivating, but one that never really “takes off” from the ground. An important question would be, should it? Everything looks intentionally somewhat “low-key”, and the film will never let the story become too melodramatic or too “big”. Humour does not reach full comedy, sadness does not reach real tears and the car races is the closest to “action” that you will find from the story. In “Newsfront”, one era is eventually ending (TV arrives and Rock plays on the radio more than Sinatra), but where the hope for the bright future still remains. At the end of the film you´ll sense that at least Len will be fine. He´s that “working man”, what the world always needs. At least I sincerely hope so.

Video

“Blue Underground” presents the film in Anamorphic 1.78:1, which is based on the remastered print created in Australia. Very detailed essay about the remastering-process can be found from the “DVD-ROM” extras, but finding the good elements required quite an excessive search (I believe the print is mostly based in “Interpositive” of the film). This same print was also used in the R4 Australian-release by “Roadshow Home Entertainment”.

The transfer captures the period look very well, with a warm, “nostalgic” colour palette and B&W sequences. You´ll sense the 1950s atmosphere and also the closeness (and the power) of the unique Australian nature. The skin tones can look slightly unnatural in places, but this is most likely part of the original look - along with the softness that´s sometimes raising its head. Visible grain can also be present and obviously old newsreel-segments include some odd film artifacts (some are also in 4:3). Newsreel-material is still mostly in very good condition and many times you don´t instantly see the difference when it switches to newly created footage (it could be that some new scenes include “fake” film artifacts to make the sequence more seamless). Black levels are quite solid. All in all “Newsfront” looks very good and is now also preserved for the next generations. Do note that, based on the IMDb, the OAR is 1.66:1. Like many 1.66:1-films, this was probably also shown in 1.85:1 along the way, so there´s nothing to worry about. The film runs 110:51 minutes (NTSC) and it has 28 chapters. The “dual layer” disc is coded for “R0”.

Audio

Like the transfer itself, also the audio is remastered - from the 3-track final mix (Mono). New Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (with Surround encoding)-tracks were created. The 5.1-track is a very natural and subtle mix, clearly focusing on the front channels. There are some directional pans in the front channels and mild music, sound effects and ambience to the rears, but other than that the 5.1-track is quite monaural to my ears. The track is very clean, so there´s really no hiss or pops. The dialogue can sound slightly “hollow” at times, but it´s also quite clear. Good effort, which doesn´t go overboard with the use of surround. Optional English HoH subtitles are also included (you just have to choose them from the Menu), although the Australian accents didn´t strike as that heavy in this film.

Extras

The main extra is the audio commentary with director/co-writer Phillip Noyce, co-writer (original) Bob Ellis and co-writer (concept)/producer David Elfick. In addition to these three gentlemen, the commentary also features actors Bill Hunter, Bryan Brown, Wendy Hughes, Angela Punch McGregor and Lorna Lesley, associate producer Richard Brennan, cinematographer Vincent Monton, composer William Motzing, costume designer Norma Moriceau, editor John Scott and production designer Lissa Coote. As confirmed in the extras (“The Restoration of Newsfront” essay), the commentary is put together from the various interview-segments. This gives some good info about the various issues, but lacks that “spontaneity” that the proper audio commentary often has. In another words, the commentary can be a bit dry. Neither the commentary, nor the other extras have any subtitles and they´re created roughly at the same time as the film restoration in Australia.

The main trio (lead by Phillip Noyce) is revealing the influences and references behind the story and the characters (real newsreel cameraman-brothers Syd and Ross Wood, along with various memories that they had as a child) and how the screenplay, financing (they had to agree to shot mainly in colour film) and style finally came together. The visual style and the use of newsreels are discussed (the film was shot in a way like it would´ve been made in the late 1940s-1950s and each “chapter” has a slightly different look) and they go more in-depth in certain scenes. Actors tell about their background and share some memories from the set and Richard Brennan is reading extracts from his production diary at that time (he reveals that the first two versions of the film were running 156 and 133 minutes and the film evolved in post-production). They also had a huge amount of newsreels and chose to follow their look in the production also (they didn´t use handheld cameras, zooms, fast cutting or shoot plenty of coverage). Noyce also reveals that he wasn´t very happy with the first rough cut, but added music and sound work made the huge difference. Original screenwriter Bob Ellis was furious after seeing the final film (since the screenplay eventually changed so much) and wanted his name removed from the original credits. He now admits that it wasn´t a very wise decision. An interesting note is that the songs from Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Elvis (heard in the background in some scenes) are actually cover-versions by Les Welch & His Orchestra. Informative audio commentary for the film buffs, but probably a bit dull for the newcomers.

-“The Last Newsreel” -featurette (11:08 minutes) is a 1990 promo piece of the 5-year “Operation Newsreel”-project from Australia´s “National Film and Sound Archive”. Its goal was to wake up the nation to find and donate the old newsreels to the archives, where they would be restored, copied and catalogued. The style of featurette is made to resemble the old newsreel-look and feel, and it´s quite humorous. You´ll find more info about this important body from here.

-“The Newsfront Story” -production notes spans over 28 screens, telling the background of the production with text, photos, articles and press quotes.

-“1978 Australian Film Awards Excerpts” -featurette runs 3:43 minutes and includes excerpts for the night when “Newsfront” was nominated in every “AFI Awards”-category, eventually winning 8 of them. It also has Audio commentary by director/co-writer Phillip Noyce and you can also access the featurette via “The Newsfront Story”-notes.

-Theatrical trailer runs 1.51 minutes. This is the reconstructed trailer of the original one (mainly made for the Cannes Film Festival), which has no dialogue - only music.

-DVD-ROM section of the disc includes many interesting (mainly text based) extras in .pdf-format (for both PC and Mac). Adobe’s “Acrobat Reader”-software is needed:

*“Study Guide” includes 23 screens and is essentially a collection of educational material for the film students (with some photos). Plenty of info is included on the themes, styles and characters of the film and e.g. “Maitland Floods”-sequence is explored.

*“Newsfront Reviews In Depth” includes 40 screens and 27 full Australian, UK and US-reviews at that time. Only for hardcore fans!

*“The Restoration of Newsfront” by assistant editor/archive footage researcher Frans Vandenburg is a fascinating package of information of how the film was eventually restored to the DVD. 14 screens tell about the research, material locating and of course about the process of restoring both the film and sound. Great addition.

*“Original Assessments for the Production of Newsfront” includes 5 screens. It includes the initial reactions to the film concept and screenplay by the “Australian Film Commission”.

Overall

While the story of “Newsfront” eventually happens after WW2, one newsreel particularly stayed in my memory after the film ended; Australian WW2 correspondent Damien Parer was killed while he was filming the grim battle in “Pelelui”, 1944. Whether the situation was life threatening or not, the world owes a big gratitude to these newsreels cameramen, who recorded history for the next generations. These films will probably be watched forever, unlike the majority of the YouTube-videos. “Newsfront” honours all the newsreel filmmakers and creates an excellent period drama. The DVD-presentation is very good, including some solid extras, so it eventually comes recommended.

This DVD is available at Sazuma.com.

The Film: Video: Audio: Extras: Overall:

 


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