It was nineteen-sixty-eight. It was the watershed moment of an entire generation. Whether it was a new beginning or a beautiful blip, those who were there knew it was history. So they brought their cameras and their notepads: some for the record, some so we could never forget. And yet as much as news footage fades, great narratives remain; thus in the midst of Chicago’s 1968 Democratic National Convention, somewhere between fact and fiction, dialogue and conversation, actors and active participant’s, Medium Cool was born.
John Cassellis (Robert Forster) is a Television Cameraman for the City of Chicago, a city that just happens to be filled with powerful voices, voices like those of Mayor Daley or Democratic Candidate Robert Kennedy, and throughout the film as mere voices they remain out of sight but never out of mind. Instead, captured in cinéma vérité, it’s Chicago’s powerless voices we come to hear the most of, the voices of demonstrators and campaigners, of hippies and draft dodgers, of single mothers and children orphaned by a war they may never understand. In a way one could argue that the city becomes a microcosm of the entire world: drawing lines between the rich and the poor, the left and the right, the war and the peace, the black and the white, and the lines that 45 years later even have yet to wash away.
Surrounded by all of these voices it is left to John and his camera to make sense of them, to find unison in them, or even some sort of “narrative”. At times we are John the cameraman and at others we are his camera. And through these dissonant lenses we come to see that it doesn’t matter which of them we may be looking through, that is, just as long as we are looking, that we can understand John by seeing him, just as well by what he sees. And on an intimate level we understand that John is both in love and at war with himself, along with the world around him. A world that very soon may never be the same.
Thus when the Democratic National Convention draws protests and demonstrations, Chicago’s powerful voices must resort to powerful acts. In fact, both sides must act by any means necessary. And if some at the time were confused by this, we as the viewer do not share in their confusion. Because we have heard both the powerful and the powerless voices, we know exactly where both reactions came from. And in the films simultaneous orchestration of both the Convention and the Demonstration we see at once powers varnished surface along with its abrasive reality, we understand that one could never truly exist without the other, and that people like John Cassellis will always be there holding the camera.