April 29, 2002
Into The Age of Awareness
Initially unleashed upon an unsuspecting film world on August 28, 1969, Medium Cool is a critically acclaimed look at the world of broadcast journalism set amid the uprising of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Because of its subject matter, its depiction of sex and its eerily realistic feel, the film was released to controversy. In fact, it was one of the first films to garner an X rating. In my paper, I will take a look at the different factors that led to the film’s impact.
The political nature of the film was one of the most important factors in its effect. Using the convention as a backdrop, the director, Haskell Wexler spins a story of journalism and its involvement with the people and the government. The nation was in the midst of the Vietnam War, and the majority of the country was still in favor of it. This was one of the reasons why Medium Cool was so radical. “The picture took a hard political point of view,” said actor Robert Forster in an interview. “That the war was wrong, and the political events surrounding the Democratic convention during 1968 were pointing us in the proper direction. That the war was wrong, and the kids were right.” The motion picture was expressing views that weren’t being heard before. “Since the ideas in it pushed us in the direction of questioning the morality of the Vietnam War, I think that probably is why it has a place in film” (Forster).
The realistic feel of the film is another alarming element. The film was scripted, but for many scenes, Wexler gave only a few directions, asking the actors to improvise. The documentary-like shots of policemen beating protestors only heighten the realism. The New York Times states that the jolting nature of the film “comes not from the fiction, but from the facts provided Wexler by Mayor Daley, the Illinois National Guard and the Chicago Police” (NY Times Review). Sensing that an insurrection would take place, Wexler took the cast and crew to Chicago. The scenes depicting a rioting crowd aren’t staged; the actors were really walking through the violent protests (Motion Picture). “There are only about twelve or thirteen seconds of actual violence in Medium Cool,” Wexler told the New York Times. “Of course, I had lots of footage of police sticking billy clubs in kids’ ribs, beating up girls and stuffing them into police wagons, but there is so much of that on TV that after a while it just becomes another show” (NY Times Encyclopedia). Even so, the small amount of violence juxtaposed with the hordes of protestors sent a powerful message to viewers of the film.
Even the government took notice of the film. In the film, Forster’s character of John discovers that the tapes of what he had been filming were being turned in to the government as a means of surveillance. Outraged by this fact, John quits the station, feeling like an unwilling stool pigeon. In reality, this plot point didn’t sit well with the FBI. “The statement about the FBI looking at the footage that newsman took was contested in my Freedom of Information about Medium Cool,” said Wexler in the DVD audio commentary. “That’s one of the things that pissed the FBI off because actually they were doing it, but they were doing it without people knowing about it” (Wexler).
And yet, with all of the controversy surrounding the politics and realism portrayed in the film, the sole reason for the films X rating stemmed from scenes of nudity and adult language. Wexler tried to negotiate with the ratings board, even changing some of the harsh language. But the board still handed down the X rating, and eventually, the film was lowered to a more fitting rating of R. “The X rating was changed to an R rating because it became obvious that this thing wasn’t a pornographic picture,” said Forster. “This was a political picture. And they certainly didn’t give an X rating for political pictures” (Forster). Wexler was appalled by the “hypocrisy” of the X rating. “Those filthy old men really think dirty. All day long, they censor the wrong movies for the wrong reason. Then, at night, they go home secure in the knowledge that they have saved the world from the vagina and the penis. It’s my feeling, however, that the danger to our society does not come from the erogenous zones. Nobody has ever been killed or maimed by fornication” (NY Times Encyclopedia).
Over thirty years later, the film still serves as a striking representation of a pivotal time in American History. The film’s tagline perfectly describes its place “beyond the age of innocence… into the age of awareness.” The film withstood the controversy and stands today as a triumph in American filmmaking.
Brown, Gene, ed. The New York Times Encyclopedia of Film. New York: Times Books, 1985.
Forster, Robert. Telephone Interview. 8 Apr. 2002.
Nash, Jay Robert and Stanley Ralp h Ross. The Motion Picture Guide: 1927-1983, L-M. Chicago: Cinebooks, Inc., 1986
The New York Times Film Reviews: 1969-1970. New York: New York Times & Arno Press, 1971.
Wexler, Haskell, dir. Medium Cool. Perf. Robert Forster. Audio Commentary from DVD. Paramount, 1969.