For the past few days, I’ve been chronologically reviewing 94 films about politicians and, to a lesser extent, politics. Four days ago, I started in on the 60s by taking a look at Sunrise at Campobello, one of the most traditional-minded and pro-American movies ever made. And now, I’m closing out the decade by taking a look at 1969’s Medium Cool, a film that is — in style, ideology, and content — the exact opposite of Sunrise at Campobello.
I should admit that I’m cheating a bit by including Medium Cool in this series of reviews. When I first started Shattered Politics, I said that I would be reviewing films about politicians. While Medium Cool is a fiercely political film, there are few elected officials to be seen on screen. That said, it was shot during the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention and, as such, the politicians are present regardless of whether or not they’re seen.
Plotwise, the film follows a news cameraman, John (Robert Forster), and his sound guy (Peter Bonerz) as they go around Chicago, searching for stories. Along the way, they interview the disturbingly cheerful owner of a gun club (played, in his film debut, by Peter Boyle), several people who volunteered on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and, in one of the film’s best and most awkward scenes, a group of Black Panthers.
Throughout the first half of the film, John remains detached from the stories that he covers. He’s more concerned with getting the footage and getting a good soundbite than in really listening to what anyone is saying. (In many ways, he’s like a less sociopathic version of the character played by Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler.) It’s not until John discovers that his station is sharing his footage with the FBI that John finally starts to show some political awareness. Unfortunately, he also shows some anger and ends up losing his job as a result.
Now unemployed, John meets Eileen (Verna Bloom), a single mother who has recently moved to Chicago from West Virginia. Now that he’s free from the detachment of his job, John actually starts to develop feelings for both Eileen and her son, Harold (Harold Blankenship). When Harold runs away, Eileen and John search Chicago for him. Unfortunately, their search happens at the same time as the 1968 Democratic Convention. While John and Eileen search, the Chicago police are busy beating protestors in the street.
(The video below is long, but worth watching, as is the entire film.)
Now, I know that, in the past, I’ve been critical of many of the counter culture films of the late 60s and early 70s, describing their politics as being shallow, trendy, and faux Leftist. (And if you doubt me, read my reviews of Getting Straight, Zabriskie Point, and R.P.M.) However, Medium Cool is an exception to those films, in that it actually works. Medium Cool was directed by famed cinematographer, Haskell Wexler. Wexler began his career shooting documentaries and, in many ways, that’s exactly what Medium Cool is. Though Robert Forster may be an actor, many of the people that he interviewed in the film were not. When he talks to the former Kennedy campaign workers, he’s talking to actual volunteers and getting their true feelings, as opposed to something written for them by an out-of-touch screenwriter. When we see John and Eileen trying to survive the violence outside the Democratic Convention, we’re also seeing Robert Forster and Verna Bloom attempting to do the same thing. The protestors being attacked were real. The cops doing the attacking were real. The violence was real.
And, considering that Medium Cool was released 46 years ago, the issues raised by the film are still real. When the Black Panthers suspiciously view John and his sound guy, we’re reminded of the protestors in Ferguson demanding that the national media get out of their way. When we see the protests outside the 1968 Democratic Convention, how can we not compare them to the protests that we still see every day? When the cops line up in military precision and we hear that orders must be followed, are we watching Medium Cool or are we watching CNN?
During one of Medium Cool‘s better known moments, an off-screen voice is heard to shout, “Look out, Haskell! It’s real!,” warning director Haskell Wexler that the violence he’s filming is actually happening. And that’s a warning that’s still appropriate and relevant today. We may be watching from the safety of our homes but it’s still real.
(Of course, it should be mentioned that, according to Wexler himself, “Look out, Haskell! It’s real!” was actually added to the scene in post production.)
It’s perhaps indicative of how much American culture changed in the 60s that a decade that started with Ralph Bellamy playing Franklin D. Roosevelt would end with Medium Cool. Fortunately, Medium Cool gives us plenty of evidence about how that change happened.