Chicago 1968. TV news cameraman and reporter John (Robert Forster) refuses to become involved in the news he reports on until he meets up with a poor, lonely, single mother (Verna Bloom) and her son, and then his social conscience begins to be raised. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party Convention is soon to be held in the city, and trouble is brewing...
Cinematographer Haskell Wexler wrote, produced and directed this potent example of political film making of the late 1960's, a time when many people were addressing social issues and violence was in the air. Taking a documentary approach, Wexler mixed a fictional story with real life events that culminated in a riot, which he filmed as part of the drama.
In the very first scene, John is shown filming a car crash, complete with a woman lying dying in the road who he makes no effort to help, simply phoning for an ambulance after he has all the shots he needs. His callous attitude reflects his feeling that the media should merely observe what they record, but as the film goes on, he realises that by reporting the news, he becomes a part of it as well.
The violence of the society is reflected in many ways: we see John attending a roller derby (basically people on roller skates beating each other up) and hear that he used to be a boxer; the gun culture becomes stronger as more citizens fear for their lives; we see young followers of Robert Kennedy knowing that later he will be murdered; and a tribute to the assassinated Martin Luther King is shown on TV. Then there is the Vietnam War that has polarised public opinion and led to anti-war protesters being attacked by the police and army.
In attempting a "state of the nation" message, Medium Cool tries a little too hard to be all-encompassing in its concerns. There are sequences regarding the poverty of the ghettos, the relevance of religion, the surveillance of the population by the authorities, and, in one of the strongest parts, racial tensions when John follows up a story about a black cab driver returning a large sum of lost money and becomes embroiled in an argument with black militants who want their voice to be heard.
Ironically, Wexler's documentary style is pretty distancing itself, but the final riot scenes are rivetting. As Bloom, in her yellow dress, wanders through protesters, police and soldiers the camera takes it all in: the shouting, the tear gas, the beatings, the running and the blood. We hear one cop yelling, "You stinkin' Commie!" as he batters a young man over the head; demonstrators call, "Fuckin' pigs!"; and famously, a camera assistant cries out to Wexler, "Look out Haskell, it's real!"
As all this commotion goes on the convention continues inside, giving the impression that at best, the authorities are out of touch and at worst, they are as callous as John was at the start of the film. The unhappy, Godard-style ending seems contrived now, but this is one of the most unique political films ever made. Also with: a nude "romp". Incidental music by the Mothers of Invention.