Peter Weir's "The Last Wave" and "Picnic at Hanging Rock" created favorable first impressions of the new generation of Australian filmmakers. A pair of exceptionally talented young women, director Gill Armstrong and actress Judy Davis, will soon confirm those impressions in the lovely "My Brilliant Career," scheduled for American release in February.

In the meantime, Phillip Noyce's "Newsfront," an inexplicable pet of critics at the Cannes and New York film festivals in 1978, has slipped into the Outer Circle, where it may be perused as a reminder that the Australians make their share of bummers too.

The premise sounded intriguing: a panorama of Australian social history from 1948 to 1958 as reflected in the activities of two brothers who work for rival newsreel companies. Who could guess that these siblings would be embodied by peculiarly unattractive actors or that the effort to extol one as a man of stubborn integrity while deploring the other as a ruthless opportunist would seem as absurdly simpleminded as it does?

If you're an American movie nut, the idea of rival newsreel companies naturally suggests something playful and entertaining, a wacky, daredevil comedy in the tradition of Buster Keaton's "The Cameraman" or Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Walter Pidgeon living it up in "Too Hot to Handle." Noyce's approach -- paying mawkish tribute to newsreels as a glorious form and ennobling profession, which they never really were, and holding up a stern, unimaginative stick-in-the-mud as a model of virtue -- is a detriment to both credulity and pleasure. We seem to be dealing with a distinctly alien form of naivete.

Bill Hunter, cast as the would-be admirable plodder, Len Maguire, ace cameraman of Cinetone News, resembles the stereotypical drab bureaucrat or officious floorwalker. He's like a bigger, humorless Franklin Pangborn. It seems quite balmy to impose him on audiences as either a moral or romantic hero, especially if Hunter insists on acting like the stuffed-shirt he appears to be. If physical appearance counts for anything on the screen -- and to Noyce's misfortune I'm afraid it counts for a vast, bottomless universe of feelings and associations -- Hunter is a grotesque choice.

Gerald Kennedy, cast as the would be disreputable brother, Frank Maguire, president of Newsco, looks and acts like a stereotypical movie gangster. What the director presumably intended as a striking contrast between principle and corruption is transformed by the infelicities of his casting into a who-cares contrast of Mr. Dull with Mr. Swarthy.

The comely Wendy Hughes plays a young career woman, Amy Mackenzie, Girl Friday to the president of Cinetone, who feels inexplicably attracted to the Brothers Repellent. She begins as the mistress of sinister Frank, who treats her shabbily and leaves her languishing when he abandons the glamorous Aussie newsreel game to take a lucrative, sell-out job in Hollywood. Amy turns for romantic solace (or something) to dreary Len, an unhappily married but devoutly Catholic family man living apart from his equally devout, equally oppressive mate.

It appears that Amy could really do much better for herself, maybe if she switched professions. Her devotion to the Maguire Boys suggests masochistic depths Noyce neglects to illuminate.

While it's diverting to see vintage newsreel footage inserted into the uninspiring chronicle of Len Maguire's loyalty to the newsreel industry, which amounts to a crankish attachment ot professional inertia, the authentic mementos fail to salvage the sinking scenario. Noyce hasn't invented characters who can sustain fleeting interest, let alone comment significantly on a Decade of Change and Conflict.

Even his nostaligic vision seems weirdly distorted. For example, we're supposed to experience it as a devastating blow to the heroic tradition of cinema when the movie theater that once played newsreels exclusively is forced to switch to Brigitte Bardot in the late '50s. Some decline.

I suspect that part of the critical praise originated in admiration for the "firmness" of Len's ideological posturing. He may be a boring prig and his work may look undistinguished, but he adheres to a staunchly, even self-righteously, progressive line. Len condemns the government's anti-Communist crackdown in the early '50s. He outclasses his sleazy brother once and for all by refusing to sell him footage of the Soviet and Hungarian water polo teams slugging it out at the 1956 Olympics. Wretch that he is, Frank wants to peddle this documentation to right-wing propagandists.

Feeble as his major devices and calculations are, Noyce shows flickers of ability. There's a good tense exchange in the screening room when the Cinetone narrator an anti-Communist played by John Dease, flatly refuses to read a line he considers leftist propaganda, provoking an argument with the insulted author. There are also pleasant evocations of a few social settings, notably a square dance at a settlement in the outback, that lead one to believe Noyce may be far more skillful with background than foreground action.

The only appealing actor on the scene is Chris Hayward, cast at Len's cheerful young assistant, who becomes romantically involved with a country girl while covering a cross-country auto rally. Their attachment might have given the film a secure sentimental foundation.