Review by Gordon Justesen
Forster, Verna Bloom, Peter Bonerz, Marianna Hill, Harold Blankenship
Director: Haskell Wexler
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 110 Minutes
Release Date: May 21, 2013
“The whole world is watching!”
Medium Cool is a rarefied combination if there ever was one. It's very much a product of its time, and yet its influence is still felt nearly 45 years later and remains relevant in many ways. You won't find another film in existence that blends feature and documentary filmmaking better than what filmmaker Haskell Wexler managed to pull off in 1969.
The heated political climate of the late 60s is captured as brutal and as effective as perhaps any piece of cinematic art in existence. In 1968, the boiling point had been reached. The war in Vietnam continued and both Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. A Presidential election was nearing, and many planned on having their voices heard at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, by any means necessary.
As the real events are shown before the viewer's eyes, we are also put in the shoes of John Cassellis (Robert Forster) a television news cameraman. Most of his job involves capturing graphic images, such as that of horrific traffic accidents, and putting them on TV for the world to see. The film does a superb job at exploring the moral complications of such a profession, as John is never entirely sure where the line between his job and simple decent human responsibility exists.
This may sound somewhat strange, but the closest thing I've seen, as far as a filmmaking process like this is concerned, is District 9. That film, though entirely fiction, established a documentary-like structure before plunging the viewer right smack in the middle of its grippingly chaotic action packed story. Medium Cool, however, remains an entirely different breed because Wexler was operating without a traditional script, letting the film grow organically and having the actors plunged deep in actual events as they were unfolding.
And it's a miracle that they were able to survive such events, most notably the violent protests at the 68 DNC, which serves as the showstopping climax of the film. I can only imagine seeing this film with an audience when originally released, as I'm sure many were floored by the footage captured. It's pretty much the equivalent of seeing a 1993 action film in which Bruce Willis is engaged in a brutal fight scene shot right in the midst of the 92 LA riots.
It's quite difficult to express how this film is the raw and masterful filmmaking accomplishment that it is. This is a case of a reviewer simply telling the reader that the film has to be seen. Since no other film has done what Wexler's has managed to do, Medium Cool is a film that truly deserves the words “one of a kind” in its description.
Here's a film I had been wanting to see for the longest time, and thanks to Criterion's magnificent Blu-ray presentation I was smart to wait as long as I did. Criterion's never ending catalog of top of the line HD releases continues with this thoroughly fantastic transfer. Mastered via a 4K digital transfer, the film is given about as perfect a treatment that such a rare breed of film could ever hope to attain. The real life events unfolding look even more authentic, as a result. Image detail is beyond staggering. Like the film itself, this Blu-ray presentation from Criterion is one you simply have to see for yourself!
Normally, I'd expect Criterion's handling of a plain Mono track to be just as fantastic as any current DTS HD mix. However, this time around the sounding results are not in high form, but I don't find it to be Criterion's fault. In many instances during the film, it seems as though the volume of what's being recorded drops low for several seconds before going back to normal again. I'm assuming this was a result of lack of proper resources (Wexler was going full guerrilla style here) and thus couldn't be fixed with any mastering. But the sound mix does deliver on the many sequences of crowd noise, particularly the climatic protests, and several bits of late 60s music sound very good in addition.
Criterion once again ushers in a triumphant package of extras for a film most deserving of such a lineup. To start off, there are two commentaries; the first featuring director Haskell Wexler, editorial consultant Paul Golding and actor Marianna Hill, the second commentary featuring historian Paul Cronin. Next up is a new, and very detailed, interview with Wexler, as well as extended excerpts from Look Out Haskell, It's Real!, a documentary from Cronin on the making of the film, which features interviews with Wexler; Golding and actors Verna Bloom, Peter Bonerz, and Robert Forster, as well as Chicago historian Studs Terkel and many others. And it doesn't end there, as we are also treated to excerpts from another documentary, Sooner or Later, which is focused on one of the actors of the film, Harold Blankenship. And there's also“Medium Cool Revisited”, a half hour video by Wexler about The Occupy Movement's protest against The 2012 NATO Summit In Chicago, and a Theatrical Trailer.
To round everything off, we get a wonderful insert booklet featuring an essay by film critic and programmer Thomas Beard.
Medium Cool is a watershed achievement in terms of filmmaking approach. It executes a form of narrative never before seen then and rarely, if ever, used today. And in terms of holding up a mirror to America at a certain point in history, this is about as great an example as you will ever find!