First off, it's a pretty good if somewhat disjointed story two "world-wise" middle class news reporters are sent to film the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and become unwittingly involved in its political demonstrations, the inner city problems that have precipitated them, and the lives of a single mother and her young son in this harsh, confusing and seriously under-privileged world. Its acting, in particular from Robert Forster as the lead reporter and the 13 year old Harold Blankenship as the son, is excellent and at times so effective that it's difficult to remember you're watching a rigidly sequenced film rather than a social documentary. And, it's overlaid with some quite stunning cinema-photography from director Haskell Wexler, one of America's very best exponents of the art, backed up by a perfectly pitched late 60's soundtrack.
Good enough so far, but that's just the start. Add-in its extensive live footage from the streets of Chicago as the riots develop, taken by the film's camera crew as they themselves are caught-up in a very "real" political drama, its ominous sequencing of the build up of events from a fun "day in the park" for the hippies/yippies to serious "police state" level violence, its equally chilling images of what was going on inside the Convention Hall while all of this was taking place, and the clever and disturbing scenes of the mother's desperate search for her lost son as Wexler films her within the increasingly anarchic crowds of demonstrators & troops actually on the streets at the time, and you've got something very special.
Part film and part documentary, not all of what you think is "real" in "Medium Cool" is, and the lines between live and acted scenes are sometimes confusingly and frustratingly blurred, as in the famous call from one of the camera crew of "look out Haskell this is real" as a tear gas canister lands in front of them, which was in fact over-dubbed afterwards. But that's the whole point of the film as the final, almost startling scenes reveal. How far is the media in control? Is what you're seeing real, distorted or contrived? Wexler's brilliance is to take this underlying theme and to mould it into a fascinating exploration of inner city life, American society in a period of huge change, and the power/needs of the media in a TV dominated world, while, in parallel, producing a gripping record of what it's like to be in the centre of a demonstration that's spiralling out of control. Juxtaposing the impersonality of reporting with the very personal situations that are involved, it raises a whole series of questions on the way without falling into the trap of most films of the era in trying to ram home too many answers. And, as a result, it remains as relevant today as it did then.
Quite rightly regarded as one of the best "counter culture" films of the late 60's and much richer and more thought provoking than this classification usually implies, it remains one of the most under-rated films out there.