Director: Haskell Wexler
Screenplay: Haskell Wexler
Starring: Robert Forster, Verna Bloom, Peter Bonerz, Harold Blankenship
Running Time: 111 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
Like my decision to take a look at The Decline of Western Civilization Collection, my agreeing to review Medium Cool was on a bit of a whim. I’d vaguely heard about it and the director sounded familiar, but I didn’t really realise its pedigree until just before watching it. I also didn’t know much about how it was made until after I’d watched it, so it’s a case of my opinion of the film becoming more positive a day after viewing.
You see, what makes Medium Cool special is that director Haskell Wexler, who is better known as a cinematographer and documentary filmmaker, combined fictional drama and actors with real life events. A few other directors had combined the ‘real’ with the ‘fake’ before this, but no one had quite done it in this extreme fashion.
The film follows news cameraman John Cassellis (Robert Forster) as he covers important cultural and political events during the turbulent late 1960’s. Cold and detached, he pays little attention to the consequences of what is going on around him. He’s only looking to get the most sensational footage he can. When he is fired after kicking up a fuss about his work being given to the FBI, he falls for Appalachian single mum Eileen (Verna Bloom), who lives in the rough side of Chicago with her son Harold (Harold Blankenship). His personal and professional life finally collide with the political turbulence around him when tragedy strikes at the riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
What makes the film’s approach particularly extreme is that, alongside taking his actors to a number of real locations and situations, Wexler actually predicted there would be civil unrest around the convention and prepared to shoot there around the time. He took his crew and actors right into the midst of the chaos and shot the pivotal final act amongst the police and protesters. Possibly the most famous scene in the film (from what I’ve heard) is where a tear gas canister is thrown towards the camera and you hear someone shout “look out Haskell it’s real!” After watching the supplementary material on the Blu-Ray it turns out the line was dubbed in afterwards, but the tear gas was real. Haskel and his crew were hit by the fumes and were in agony afterwards. It’s bold and daring filmmaking the likes of which are rarely seen.