‘Look out, Haskell, it’s real!’ A Review of ‘Medium Cool’ (1969)
This is a film review from Patrice Bowman, who writes the newly revamped WEEKEND blog column: “The 21st Century through a Monochrome Lens: Re-examining Older Films.” Watch her intro video here.
When I’m actually able to watch television, I watch the news about 30 percent of the time. (The other 70 percent, I watch older films and color-saturated cartoons.) While you probably have a healthier balance of television consumption than I do, when we do sit down for a little news, we expect such qualities as coherency, intelligence, objectivity and honesty. But these expectations aren’t always met. Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool” (1969), which tells the story of a reporter amidst the turmoil of late 1960s America, reminds us that televised journalism was never just about the “facts”; instead, it has been an uneasy concoction of desensitization and manipulation of reality for minute-quick thrills. To question what TV news presents to us, “Medium Cool” mixes the fictional with the actual. It’s a shame, though, that the underdeveloped characters and their rambling storylines never challenge us in the same way that the film’s form and style do.
We first encounter Chicago reporter John (Robert Forster) as he and his partner Gus (Peter Bonerz) photograph an injured car accident victim. They only call for an ambulance when they’re finished with their job. John eventually questions his detached attitude towards his profession once he discovers that his boss has been showing the station’s video outtakes to the FBI. He snaps, causing him to lose his job. John then befriends Harold (Harold Blankenship), a boy whom he wrongly accused of stealing from his car, and courts Harold’s mother Eileen (Verna Bloom), a Vietnam War widow from the Appalachians. When Harold disappears one evening, Eileen searches for him through the crowds of protesters and police officers outside of the Democratic National Convention as John records the momentous political event.
I would never have guessed that “Medium Cool” originally started as an adaptation of “The Concrete Wilderness” (1967), a novel less about socio-political revolution and more about an Appalachian boy’s adjustment to urban Chicago. Parts of the original story — such as Harold’s fascination with pigeons — do sneak into this movie, but these moments only remind us how right Wexler was to pursue a new story: America in 1968. “At the time,” Wexler explained in a 1969 interview, “I felt certain that [the] novel was not the sort of film I could make in good conscience with all these momentous events going on.” “Momentous” is an underestimate: in 1968, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam claimed hundreds of American lives, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated and riots broke out in many major cities. Wexler, a skilled director and cinematographer, captures the anti-establishment fervor in Chicago at the time. True to the cinéma vérité approach, his shaky camera is mercilessly realistic yet stylized. Wexler’s canted shots of the pompous, oblivious Democratic National Convention are comical, while the tense long takes of the confrontation between John and black militants claw one’s nerves to shreds. The camerawork here is so startling that I wonder why, when we talk about American films from the 1960s, we don’t mention “Medium Cool” alongside the likes of “Easy Rider” and “Bonnie and Clyde.”
Maybe it’s because Wexler the great cinematographer/director is also Wexler the poor screenwriter. The script, when it comes to a coherent story and engaging characters, doesn’t match the visuals. Don’t get me wrong; the screenplay tackles tough ideas concerning television and participation with it. Unfortunately, the triple marriage of the commentary on TV with the fictional film and with the “fly-on-the-wall” documentary doesn’t work. The plot is ridden with many holes (Wasn’t John fired? Why is he filming the Convention?) and the actors are only tools by which Wexler can navigate through 1968 Chicago. Are they terrible performers? No, but they’re far from good. The only exception is Bloom. Her wide eyes and Appalachian accent give us a tantalizing glimpse of subdued determination and quiet desperation.
“Medium Cool” is not just a look at what TV news used to be; it’s an opinion on what TV news is in general. Tune into any news channel with its 24/7 news cycle, and you’re immediately bombarded with sensationalism. Does true objectivity exist? When should the reporter and the viewer stop observing and start acting? Wexler asked these questions back in the ’60s, but it doesn’t look like we’re any closer to answers.