The movie was met with widespread acclaim from numerous critics, including Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel of Siskel & Ebert, both calling the movie a "well-crafted masterpiece." The movie was also named one of the greatest movies of 1969, as well as one of the most influential movies in the new age of Hollywood. Robert Forster was also met with universal acclaim for his performance.
In 2003, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
John Cassellis is a television news cameraman. In one of the opening scenes, a group of cameramen and journalists are discussing the ethical responsibilities within their profession: When should filming a gruesome scene end and human responsibility to try to save a life begin? As viewers we are presented with issues such as violence as spectacle, political and social discontent, extreme racism, and class divisions. The film is constantly juggling documentary footage with feature film image. Among his sources, Wexler uses footage from military training camps in Illinois for military troops preparing for planned demonstrations by students and anti-war activists during the Democratic National Convention later that summer.
Cassellis is seemingly hardened to ethical and social issues; he is more concerned with his personal life and pursuing audience-grabbing stories. Yet once Cassellis finds out that his news station has been providing the stories and information gathered by the cameramen and news journalists to the FBI, he becomes enraged. The news station creates an excuse to fire him, and Cassellis is let go. But he soon finds another job free-lancing at the Convention.
In the course of his television job Cassellis meets Eileen and her son, Harold, who had moved from West Virginia to Chicago. Eileen is a single mother whose husband according to their son is in "Vietnam." Eileen tells Cassellis that her husband is dead, but it is unclear whether she really knows that to be the case. While unemployed, Cassellis spends a lot of time with them and grows fond of them both.
The film climaxes with a scene in which Eileen is walking through rioting crowds, based on Wexler's footage of students in Chicago demonstrating during the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1968. Her son has gone missing and she is desperately seeking Cassellis for help, but he is filming the convention. As a result, the fictional story and real-life brutality merge. The director explained that he planned his principal filming schedule to coincide with the convention, expecting that a riot would occur. The 1968 Democratic National Convention protest activity resulted in a riot. A study team of the President's National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders concluded (in its report Rights in Conflict) that the events "can only be called a police riot" based on massive evidence that "some policemen lost control of themselves under exceedingly provocative circumstances." Following this, Cassellis's and Eileen's paths converge in the middle of a protest, and Cassellis escorts Eileen to his car. As they drive to an undisclosed location, unaware that Harold has returned home, Cassellis accidentally crashes the car into a tree, killing Eileen and critically injuring himself. The final scene, echoing the first, is of a passing driver stopping to photograph the accident, after which he leaves the heavily damaged car behind.Robert Forster as John Cassellis
Verna Bloom as Eileen
Peter Bonerz as Gus
Marianna Hill as Ruth
Harold Blankenship as Harold
Charles Geary as Harold's father
Sid McCoy as Frank Baker
Christine Bergstrom as Dede
Peter Boyle as Gun clinic manager
China Lee as Roller derby patron
The title comes from Marshall McLuhan's work in which he described TV as a "cool" medium. The "cooler" the medium, "the more someone has to uncover and engage in the media" in order to "fill in the blanks." The film questions the role and responsibilities of television and its newscasts.
The music in the film was assembled by guitarist Mike Bloomfield (Haskell Wexler's cousin). The film features contemporary music from the early Mothers of Invention albums by rock musician Frank Zappa, as well as the Love instrumental "Emotions" over the opening credits and as a recurring theme. Wexler has said the scene under the opening credits with the bike messenger delivering film to the television station was inspired by Jean Cocteau's film, Orpheus.
Harold Blankenship, who played the young boy Harold in Medium Cool, was tracked down by filmmaker Paul Cronin (who made the documentary Look out Haskell, it's real) and appears in Cronin's film Sooner or Later. Blankenship named his first son after Haskell Wexler.
Shot at a time of great social and political counterculture upheaval in the United States, Wexler's film reflects the conflicted nature of a country divided by issues of race, gender, poverty, crime, and war. Such themes were touched upon by more mainstream films such as Getting Straight and The Strawberry Statement, but Wexler's treatment was considered highly controversial – the Motion Picture Association of America film rating system gave it an 'X' rating. The censors "objected to the language and the nudity," Wexler said later; "What no one had the nerve to say was that it was a political 'X'". In 1970 the film was re-rated 'R'.
Much critical response to Medium Cool focused around the revolutionary techniques of combining fact and fiction rather than the plot of the film. In his 1969 review, Roger Ebert wrote "In Medium Cool, Wexler forges back and forth through several levels...There are fictional characters in real situations...there are real characters in fictional situations". While Ebert did not find the plot to be particularly innovative, he acknowledged that Wexler purposely left it up to his audience to fill in the gaps of the romance, and at the same time presented images of great political significance. Ultimately, Ebert credited Wexler with masterfully combining multiple levels of filmmaking to create a film that is "important and absorbing". Ebert placed the film second on his list of the 10 best pictures of 1969.
Similarly, in his 1969 review of the film for The New York Times, Vincent Canby credits Wexler with presenting his audience with powerful imagery through the use of documentary filmmaking techniques. He wrote that Medium Cool was "an angry, technically brilliant movie that uses some of the real events of last year the way other movies use real places — as backgrounds that are extensions of the fictional characters." Like Ebert, Canby pointed out that the political atmosphere of the film fills in the blanks left open by a relatively superficial plot. Furthermore, Canby noted the film's historical significance: "The result is a film of tremendous visual impact, a kind of cinematic Guernica, a picture of America in the process of exploding into fragmented bits of hostility, suspicion, fear and violence." Like Ebert, Canby felt that the real significance of the film was in its capturing of a specific political situation rather than its conventional success through plot and character development. Canby wrote: "Medium Cool is an awkward and even pretentious movie, but... it has an importance that has nothing to do with literature."