Shot in a kind of cinema-verite style, and then interlocking staged scenes with documentary shots done by the movie’s crew, and with news-type footage from other sources, this is a very thoughtful and well-thought-out movie. And when I say “the movie’s crew” I basically mean Haskell Wexler, who wrote the script, and photographed and directed it.
The film begins with cameramen shooting down into a wrecked car, and also photographing the victim: the driver who is lying outside the car, and is apparently still alive, because after the two have climbed back up the hill to their own car, one says they should probably call somebody to come help. So right away media culpability is a fundamental theme.
In the Special Features we learn that Wexler was actually in Chicago to make a film based on a book “Concrete Wilderness”, but he timed the shoot to be there during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and then the realities of the convention and the protests it inspired became his new focus, and the wilderness movie was never made. The perfect storm of recent American history: The Vietnam War, Students for a Democratic Society marching for Black Power, and the Poverty of nearby Appalachia were emblematic of the things people were upset about, and willing to march about, all over the country. And it hardly helped calm anybody that both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated earlier that year. Feelings were high and violence could be smelled in the air. In one scene Black Power signs can be seen: “Equal Rights Now!”, “Integrated Schools Now!”, “Decent Housing Now!”, “An End to Bias Now!”. It’s easy to forget the pleas for decent housing and integrated schools and just remember the cries for equal rights, which many whites were fundamentally unable to accept.
In the film two cameramen for Channel 12 NBC in Chicago, John and Gus (Robert Forster and Peter Bonerz) are assigned to cover the protests. In doing so, John meets Eileen (Verna Bloom) and her young son Harold (Harold Blankenship). Eileen is in Chicago where she can earn a small salary to raise her son, since there are no jobs at all for her in West Virginia. John steps in to help, and the human story of this sort-of family juxtaposes nicely with the people John interviews, whose concerns are much more for the future of their families and not so much tonight’s meal. One man tells John, “You only come around when one of us picks up a gun.” And another man says,”You can’t just walk in, on your arrogance, and expect things to be like they are, because when you walked in you brought City Hall and all the mass communications with you, and you are the exploiter. You’re the ones who distort, and ridicule, and emasculate. And that ain’t cool.”
Then John finds out that his film has been taken by the Feds to be examined with an eye to identifying the men he interviewed. Now he feels exploited, and realizes he has lied to everyone willing to talk to him, and the circumstances don’t let him off the hook.
There’s one quote from the convention where someone at the podium asks the crowd in general if there is some way that they can compel Mayor Richard Daley to remove the police from the amphitheater. But we have already been shown that changing the police is not the first step, because that first step is to change the media. The media are there to film violence, not to explain the thing being protested. The “If it bleeds, it leads” mentality is stronger now than it was in 1968.
The film ends with another car wreck, and cameramen filming the victims, with more interest, one assumes, in composition than in the lives in need of assistance.
From the beginning of the film: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” – George Orwell
Thanks, Tiffany and Andy!