Late in the documentary Mike Wallace Is Here, there is a clip of the legendary reporter interviewing playwright Arthur Miller. Wallace asks Miller what the ultimate goal has been of Miller’s decades of work; what he’s been trying to achieve. “Oh, some little moment of truth,” Miller responds. Director Avi Belkin’s documentary about the life and career of Wallace has uncovered much more than that. His film explores not only the driving force of one man’s life, but how he in turn affected the entire profession of journalism, for better and for worse. Mike Wallace Is Here is a perceptive, unflinching look at what made Wallace tick.
Belkin eschews the standard “talking heads” format that you might typically find in a documentary retrospective of a person’s life. He opts instead for a more novel approach. Wallace – who died in 2012 at the age of 93 – is in virtually every clip we see in the film. Instead of present-day interviews in which subjects speak about the Wallace of the past, Belkin has fused together interviews Wallace either conducted or ones in which he was the subject. The latter allows Wallace to narrate his own life story, which he does with a surprising amount of candor.
Despite the many moments of vulnerability Wallace shares throughout the film, it becomes evident that he hated answering tough questions as much as he loved asking them. Belkin explores this theme throughout the film, but one juxtaposition he makes between two clips stands out among the rest. In the first, an interviewer tells Wallace he would like to discuss Wallace’s multiple marriages. The newsman becomes indignant. He berates the line of questioning as a frivolous waste of time before sheepishly answering that he has been married four times. Cut to a clip of Wallace interviewing Larry King in which he asks King about his five marriages.
Many of the interviews in which Wallace is answering the questions come late in his life, and they are conducted by his fellow 60 Minutes colleagues like Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, and Lesley Stahl. Safer gets right to the heart of things in one of the early clips when he asks Wallace – with a laugh that feels like it’s there just to soften the impact – “Why are you sometimes such a prick?”
If that’s one question that Safer never quite gets Wallace to answer, Belkin does by way of his documentary. The complicated portrait he paints is of a man with a singular focus, his career. He floundered about in radio and the early days of television, doing anything he could to stay in the spotlight: game show host, actor, cigarette pitch-man.
After a few short-lived interview programs in the late ‘50s, it took the death of his son, Peter, to focus him. He wanted to be taken seriously, so he made a concerted effort to become a respected journalist. It was no easy task. His colleagues initially treated him as an outsider because of his varied other positions in entertainment.
He met a kindred spirit in producer Don Hewitt, and in 1968 they launched what would become the longest running newsmagazine program on American television, 60 Minutes. Belkin again chooses to complicate the story here. While 60 Minutes did become a success, and its star reporter was lauded for his willingness to ask tough questions, Mike Wallace Is Here asks some tough questions of its own.
Belkin shows us the hard-hitting interview that Wallace performed with General William Westmoreland concerning misleading reports about enemy troop strength during the Viet Nam conflict in order to boost U.S. troop morale. The fallout from that interview led to Westmoreland suing CBS and a bout of depression for Wallace that involved a long-rumored suicide attempt.
For every instance of important journalism that Wallace produced, though, Belkin suggests the newsman was also responsible for a transformation taking place in the profession that wasn’t so noble. Wallace and 60 Minutes often used gotcha-style reporting and sensationalism in an effort to commodify the news. Belkin makes the argument that 60 Minutes and programs like it led to the news’ fixation on the business concerns of entertainment: ratings and revenue.
There is a clip of a roundtable discussion about journalism in which a representative for the New York Times bluntly states – with Mike Wallace sitting just a few seats down – that in his opinion, what Wallace is doing isn’t journalism, it’s show business. Belkin further makes the point with a clip of Barbara Walters confronting Wallace during an interview. She asks him about being supplied with questions for one of his interviews instead of writing them himself.
Thus, the opening clip of Mike Wallace Is Here, in which Wallace is interviewing op-ed-masquerading-as-real-journalism king Bill O’Reilly, comes off more as an indictment than as praise. O’Reilly – who, for many years, hosted Inside Edition, one of the many tabloid newsmagazines that 60 Minutes spawned – tells Wallace that he is the reason O’Reilly does what he does. Wallace is the reason that O’Reilly, as he puts it, is “winning the game of broadcast journalism,” as if the idea of “winning” journalism isn’t antithetical to the very idea of journalism and truth seeking.
That’s what makes the documentary so compelling. It gives us a probing examination of Wallace’s life and his dedication to his profession. The film explores the complexities of his career. That career included countless examples of Wallace asking uncompromising questions of his subjects, but was also at the forefront of making journalism a money-making proposition; just another form of entertainment.
Mike Wallace Is Here is a complicated documentary that asks tough but fair questions of its subject. It undoubtedly would have pleased Mike Wallace a great deal.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Avi Belkin uses the life of Mike Wallace as a platform to ask some bigger questions about journalism. Both the form and content of his documentary add up to greater than the sum of their parts.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I came away with a real respect for the way Wallace achieved his career goals through sheer force of will. He is probably as close as you can get to a real-life example of the cliché of the self-made man.
- That said, I don’t think he was as ethically pure as someone like Edward R. Murrow, who had a conviction about exposing corruption and demagogues. Wallace, at least to an extent, seemed to be in it for the fame and adulation.
- Several people throughout the documentary make the point that Wallace succeeded not primarily because he was an asshole, but it certainly helped. It supports my belief that this is an asshole’s world. Nice people usually (with rare exceptions) finish last.
- A section that the film covers that I didn’t even get into is the tobacco industry/Jeffrey Wigand story. Michael Mann’s excellent film The Insider would work as an excellent companion to Mike Wallace Is Here.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- Three ancient movie-goers made this one of the worst theater experiences I’ve had in recent memory. And there were only five us in the audience. These three talked at top volume throughout the movie. They mostly commented on how they remembered such-and-such star that Wallace was interviewing. The worst was when they didn’t know who was on the screen. “WHO’S THAT?!?,” one would ask. “I’M NOT SURE!,” another would unhelpfully provide. I was four rows behind them, mind you. It made me want to ram my car key through my ears.