Film Synopsis

In Medium Cool, the camera is a weapon capable of wreaking violence on society.

"Is that thing loaded?" a character jokes during an interview at a shooting range. The nature of the weapon-holder's responsibility is a question raised throughout the film as cameraman John Cassellis covers many of the remarkable events of 1968: the Poor People's Campaign in Washington, D.C., presidential candidate Robert Kennedy's assassination, and the National Democratic Convention in Chicago. In the pre-credit shots of the film, Cassellis and his soundman Gus tape the wreckage of a fatal car accident, radioing for an ambulance only as they leave the scene. In the next sequence, the two men mingle at a cocktail party where journalists debate the role of violence in society and whether the media’s role is to explain or to record events. When one woman accuses Gus of lacking a conscience, he explains that he acts merely as “the elongation of a tape recorder”—the reporter is, in effect, a machine.

Cassellis re-examines his role only after learning that his employer has allowed the FBI to scrutinize station footage; he discovers with anger that he has unknowingly been a "fink," the reason for which many cameramen have been attacked by their subjects. Just as Cassellis starts to develop a human interest in his assignments, and befriends an Appalachian widow Eileen and her son Harold, the station fires him without explanation, and the protagonist becomes another victim of the corporate media system that Wexler's film criticizes. The film's most notable footage is from the climactic sequence when Eileen weaves through the Chicago street demonstrations in an effort to reach Cassellis inside the convention and locate her runaway son. It is here that fiction and documentary collide, as Eileen's personal drama is eclipsed by the epic events she witnesses around her.

In the final scene, John and Eileen's death in a car accident is preceded seconds earlier by a radio announcement of the event—a reassertion of the strange nature of instantaneous mass media, which sometimes shapes events even as it reports them. A car drives past the scene of the wreck, slowing only enough for a young boy to snap a photograph, a moment that parallels and inverts the film's first sequence. Wexler's film comes full circle, returning to the question of media responsibility: is the cameraman accountable for what he witnesses, or is he merely the elongation of the machine, a cold and inhumane recorder of images? The notion of culpability is underscored by a final tracking shot that zooms back and far above the accident scene to Haskell Wexler himself who swivels his large camera to face the screen in a self-reflexive acknowledgement of the filmmaker's accountability as a witness, and by implication, the film viewer's responsibility for what he watches.

The title of the film, Medium Cool, stems from the work of media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who defined "cool" media as those with low-definition images that require a lot of the viewer's sensory participation to complete. Television, in the 1960s, with its small blurry shapes and images, was a cool medium, he said. McLuhan's argument that "the medium is the message" is helpful in examining Wexler's film and the Chicago events.