Medium Cool (1969): Haskell Wexler’s Seminal Film about Politics and Media in 1968

Shot in and around the 1968 Democratic National Convention, “Medium Cool” uses the police riots as a backdrop to a story about a cameraman gradually coming to consciousness about politics and media. An auteurist work par excellence, “Medium Cool” was shot, directed, written and co-produced by Haskell Wexler. The text is very loosely based on the novel, “The Concrete Wilderness,” by Jack Couffer.

As is known, Haskell himself became politicized by the tumultuous events of the late 1960s, the Vietnam War and the anti-War movement. As producer-director, Wexler weaves fact and fiction in a brilliant, innovative way (by standards of the time). Robert Forester plays John Cassellis, an ambulance-chasing Chicago cameraman who discovers love and the relevance of protest at the 1968 Democratic Convention. His love interest is played by the great New York actress Verna Bloom, who later appeared in Scorsese’s “After Hours” (1985).

The footage of the riots Wexler shot with his actors is chilling enough to shake any audiences out of apathy and lethargy.

The cameraman-protag resembles Wexler himself, who had a won the Oscar Award for his black and white cinematography for Mike Nichols’ “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in 1967 (he won another Oscar for “Bound for Glory,” in 1976).

He concludes his seminal work with a notable camera pan that implicates the complicity of the viewers themselves. Like Michelangelo Antonioni’s seminal 1966 “Blow-Up, Wexler’s docu-drama raises some intriguing questions about watching, viewing and participating in political events, such as how long can one watch before getting really involved What’s the definition of engagement Is it just a matter of degree/extent and/or also calls for both feeling and direct action

“A favorite at film societies and campuses throughout the 1970s, “Medium Cool” served as a template and inspiration for future generations of American political filmmakers, such as Oliver Stone.

Haskell Wexler’s second directorial effort, the even more overt political expose, “Latino,” about the American involvement in Nicaragua, was less effective and influential, partly because of the context in which it was released, during the height of Reagan’s popularity.

Cast:

John Cassellis (Robert Forster)
Eileen Horton (Verna Bloom)
Gus (Peter Bonerz)
Ruth (Marianne Hill)
Harold Horton (Harold Blnakenship)
Frank Baker (Sid McCoy)
Dede (Christine Bergstrom)
Pennybaker (Robert McAndrew)
News Director Karlin (William Sickinger)