Political cinema was prominent around the world during the 1960’s and in 1969 comes cinematographer-turned-writer/director Haskell Wexler with his own revolutionary Medium Cool, which plays out along the lines of a news story. When satires like Dr. Strangelove and The Manchurian Candidate or thrillers like Fail-Safe have come out, Haskell Wexler sheds light on the nation’s growth without any sort of compromise coming along the way. He shows America as it was back in the summer of 1968, but at the same time a story of great importance arises that places it almost along the lines of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers or Costa-Gavras’s Z regarding how they handle such sensitive material. On his directorial debut, Haskell Wexler brought to the screen what no other filmmaker could, but considering his notability as a cinematographer, a more impressive feat was reached.
Medium Cool isn’t really a film that’s telling a singular story, but it’s a narrative – one that centers around a tough news reporter as played by Robert Forster. Most often, his news reports cover racial tensions that have taken place within the Chicago area but his reports have also proven useful for the FBI, he protests and this results in his firing. Through the narrative he tells a story of what is shaking America at the time, but through the content which is being put on display comes a brilliant hybrid that only fits perfectly for the message that Wexler intended to get across. But because of the fact that what we are watching is done as a means of capturing what the time and place was like, the feeling of being a time capsule has only called for viewers to think about progress and as years have passed by, Medium Cool only grows increasingly relevant on the count of how Haskell Wexler chooses to show it.
The film’s center core is a narrative that revolves around Forster, but the content is nonfictional. In a sense it almost finds itself working on a similar ground where The Battle of Algiers has managed to achieve its own success, by blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction resulting in an incredibly discomforting feeling of being a spectator to witness the political turmoil as it runs across the nation. And with the feeling of being a spectator, there only comes a thought that someone must be around to tell the story, but given how Haskell Wexler chooses to present current events from the period, it always makes for a fascinating watch. Haskell Wexler chooses not to explain anything amidst all the frustration being shown within his blend of documentary and fiction, but rather instead he knows his audience is going to recognize that this is the world that they live in, and in the future, a world that was. Medium Cool begs the question regarding how much we have learned from our past, and whether or not we choose to improve for the better in terms of getting our own message across.
Noting that Wexler has garnered himself a reputation as one of the most notable cinematographers working during the period, he still takes on said position when he worked on Medium Cool and through every movement through each event, almost like a documentarian walking in the scene. But the fact that Wexler shoots like this also adds to the commentary to which he presents in a good way for the narrative has set out a goal to be against the establishments who want to manipulate truth for the benefit of attracting viewers of a biased worldview. He carries a very cinéma vérité style when it comes to telling the story, but it helps give the film an authentic feeling especially when capturing the setting and all the confusion and anger that would be present. It feels so perfectly reflective of the political turmoil at the time and it still serves as a mirror for the current state in which America is living in, as something to learn from.
Although Robert Forster’s performance as the tough news reporter John Cassellis is a prime factor for the success that Medium Cool has achieved, this is also where another one of the more frustrating elements comes in. As a narrative feature, these portions of Medium Cool noticeably feel rather hokey compared to the anger that would be present in sequences that make for the film’s uncompromising documentary-like atmosphere. While there’s a clear commentary that Wexler creates within this aspect regarding truth and how it is bent around for the sake of garnering appeal or abused for the benefit of the corrupt, it’s evident that there’s a weakness coming around from how Wexler took duties as a screenwriter because certain aspects of the script in these areas never feel nearly as convincing as they should sound. It may have been a thing of the time but even today, these moments still feel too hokey to convince fully.
The title alone, “medium cool,” already presents a commentary regarding where viewers choose to get their sources – rather than searching for the reliable they only head for the “cool” as a means of pandering to their own leanings. Medium Cool on the other hand isn’t about the cool anymore, because instead what Medium Cool is showing is everything in the summer of 1968 as it happens in front of one’s very own eyes. Haskell Wexler isn’t merely telling a story through Medium Cool, he’s documenting what America was like amidst the political turmoil of the period and as its future has rendered itself a time capsule, it still remains one of the most important American films of its own era and essential viewing. Is any of this ever real? Haskell Wexler isn’t telling us any of that, because we are the ones deciding for ourselves based on how we perceive what is being told.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Paramount.
Directed by Haskell Wexler
Screenplay by Haskell Wexler
Produced by Tully Friedman, Michael Philip Butler, Steven North
Starring Robert Forster, Verna Bloom
Release Year: 1969
Running Time: 110 minutes