To pin down an opinion regarding 1969’s Medium Cool is a difficult act of reviewing. On one hand, it’s a transfixing ‘60s experiment that combines fact and fiction with near documentary finesse, working well as both a social commentary and a sort of docudrama. But on the other, it’s a film easy to admire but hard to love, raising important questions but keeping our minds provoked instead of outraged. It’s a Godardian film more sizable in budget, more in control, and with more to say. It’s technically brilliant but emotionally standoffish.
Taking place before and during the 1968 Democratic National Convention Riots, Medium Cool finds its anti-hero through John Cassellis (Robert Forster), a tenacious TV cameraman on the brink of an identity crisis. For years, he’s grown accustomed to the voyeuristic presence of a reporter and how one must stay neutral in a time of chaos in order to take home a story by the end of the day. But with a war going on in Vietnam, not to mention the growing racial and political tensions in the United States, he becomes increasingly concerned that his job is pushing the limits of ethics, more concerned with telling a story than helping the people who make up the story.
Medium Cool is, more or less, plotless, following around its leading character like an overly-attached canine friend who wants to see something exciting happen without warning. Like a Steve McQueen or Paul Newman type, John is not a provoker but an observer, only pushed to his wits end when humanity is on the edge of collapse. His plight works as a near perfect reflection of American society during the 1960s, normally hardened but slowly unwinding into a passionate mess as it becomes ever evident that politics, as well as society and the culture that comes with it, need a serious makeover. To continue on in crisis mode for another decade would only push the states into anarchy.
Clearly, the film made more of an earthquake upon release because that was when it was the most relevant — though its questions about politics and media attention are as pressing as ever, its prominence has all but vanished as of 2015, working more as a decade defining oddity not as influential as all the Easy Riders and Bonnie and Clydes. This is most likely due to the fact that it is revolutionary in the way it is filmed rather than in the way it speaks. So disjointed is its way of storytelling (traveling back and forth between its fictional, central plot and the documentary footage until they completely merge) that it’s hard to really grasp it. We’re kept at an arm’s length when we should be a mere inches away from its heartbeat.
Still, it’s easy to see just how much Haskell Wexler, a cinematographer turned writer/director for Medium Cool, influenced films for the next decade or so. His rambling, often ad-libbed conversational style is reminiscent of Altman and Cassavetes, and his personal way of putting fictional characters in a very plausible (in this case, real) situation distinctly reminds of Ashby. Forster, an everyman, matches Wexler’s true-to-life directorial style with noticeable ease. But most of the film is merely remarkably risky, never quite making a permanent stamp in our cinematic minds. It’s a radical piece of work to be sure — just don’t expect any other sort of reaction besides appreciation. C+