Between the Idea and the Reality
Newsfront Directed by Phillip Noyce At the Orson Welles
LEN MAGUIRE, Cinetone cameraman, is just a regular kind of guy. He has a dull marriage that falls apart in the usual ways, he's a company man, successful but unremarkable in his trade, and he inhabits that most middle class and homogeneous of all countries, Australia.
Phillip Noyce, on the other hand, is ambitious: a boy with a future, a man with a vision. One of the new breed of Australian directors aiming for international fame, Noyce plucks modest Maguire from his fictional existence in fifties Australia, and saddles this potato-faced sap with the trials of the decade--a whole generation's troubles weighing down on his unathletic shoulders.
Noyce not only pins Maguire with a heavy fictional load--a complicated if uninspired romantic life, three kids, and professional rivalry--he demolishes him by adding a further dimension of newsreels. Weaving together the large-than-life dramas of actual newsreels with the mundane existence of Maguire and his fictional associates, Noyce creates a rich and engaging tapestry, but the thread of plot is often obscured by detail.
Clearly infatuated with the idea of integrating news footage and drama, Noyce indulges in un-neccessary gymnastics that distract and confuse the audience. He leaps from year to year at odd moments which turn out not to mean anything after all; he wallows happily in sentimental mire only incidental to main themes; he scrutinizes emotional tensions between second-and third-rank characters while often leaving Maguire's critical moments to our imagination.
ANNOYING AS THESE directorial intrusions may be, at least they are flaws in an interesting film. The news footage, by itself, would make an entertaining documentary Noyce must have sifted through eons of film of find such choice moments--Aussies crawling through the underbrush rooting out Public Enemy #1, the rabbit; the vice-presidential Nixon arriving with Second Lady Pat; flies buzzing around the new Prime Minister and his staff as he decries the Communist menace. The opening sequence, kangaroos excepted, is eerily effective, capturing the strangely fearful confidence of the post-war period.
Noyce uses documentary footage most effectively as social and political commentary. Although he embraces the simplicity, innocence and parochialism of the people he films, he casts a wiser eye on the cold was suppression of communism and the rigid posturing of the Church. Sometimes the newsreels do blend into the fiction easily--Maguire's steadfast moralism shows better against the undeniable portrait of the fifties on real film. Assigned to film a flood, Maguire and his young cameraman grope their way into the disaster area at night. A newsreel by the competition, Newsco, introduces us to the scene. In a fairly believable sequence, Maguire's assistant drowns. His death plays on the marquees to sell the newsreel.
If you look for technique, you'll find a lot of talent in Newsfront. Vincent Monton's photography is graceful and effective. Switches from color to black-and-white seem random, but Monton does well with both.
Stylistically, Noyce often imitates (with flattery, not parody) the films of the forties and fifties. Cutting and panning techniques follow content--sometimes the strident sweeps of the newsreels, sometimes the sentimental gaze of Capra or Hawks. A scene in the bar of a flashy Melbourne hotel harks back to Casablanca, for example. Len Maguire, with his new girl Amy on his arm, meets his brother Frank (Amy's old flame) after years of separation. Frank's brash charm, his pert, silly American secretary, conversation laced with double entendres and meaningful glances, and even a black piano player crooning "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"--it's all so stylishly orchestrated by Noyce that you're sure you've seen it before.
If Noyce occasionally slips into sappiness, he finishes with a sentimental flourish equal to Norman Rockwell. When Maguire refuses to sell out to corporate forces, you can't resist a smile and a heartthrob at lines like: "He's running towards a precipice with his eyes wide open." "No, he's just a bit old-fashioned."
NOYCE'S NOSTALGIA is so wide-eyed and enthusiastic, so genuine, that you can't trash it as easily as Grease or Bye Bye Birdie. If you can suspend your understandable desire for a visible plot, and overlook gaping holes in construction, Newsfront may draw you in. If you're a sucker for nostalgia, stay and see it twice--the second ride, when you know where the bumps are, is easier to take.