Mike Wallace is Here
Avi Belkin’s uniquely mounted biographical documentary Mike Wallace is Here looks at one of television journalism’s most indispensable and controversial luminaries. Adopting a fast paced and sometimes purposefully abrasive take-no-prisoners style that its investigative newsman subject would likely find novel and suspect in equal measure, Mike Wallace is Here might not be a deep dive into the life and times of one of CBS’ greatest reporters and editorialists, but it’s certainly engaging and entertaining.
Mike Wallace grew up an acne afflicted teenager in small town Massachusetts, where he became enamoured with the medium of radio. From there, Wallace became an actor – predominantly on the radio and in TV commercials – and an unlikely voice of news reports. In the 1950s, Wallace was tapped to host his own talk show; one that ran counter to the heavily scripted gentility and politeness that was exhibited in most televised sit downs between journalists and the celebrities or world leaders they’ve been tasked with profiling. That show showcased Wallace’s abilities to bluntly ask important, frequently provocative, and genuinely reflective questions to his subjects, but also underlined his status as a potential network liability. After The Mike Wallace Interview was slapped with dozens of libel lawsuits and the show eventually got cancelled, the actor turned reporter struggled to find steady work until CBS news producer Don Hewitt pegged him for a prime slot on the network’s new news magazine, 60 Minutes.
Belkin’s approach to Wallace’s life is an inventive, albeit limiting one. Mike Wallace is Here is comprised solely of interviews, news reports, outtakes, and behind-the-scenes footage that’s either guided by or expressly about the Belkin’s subject. Few people have produced the sheer volume of memorable, contentious, and heavily talked about interviews as Wallace has, and it’s easy to see why Belkin would gravitate towards letting his film’s subject tell the story at hand in their own words and actions. Belkin revels in clips where Wallace holds the feet of everyone from Barbara Streisand to Ayatollah Khomeini to the fire, but is careful to include the handful of times that the reporter had been asked to actually become the subject of an interview, rather than being the person to ask all the questions.
Mike Wallace is Here has a great give-and-take that’s nicely indicative of the subject’s preferred style of journalism. For every sequence that shows Wallace gaining the upper hand over a difficult story or interview, there’s another where the reporter, who passed away in 2012, nervously and sometimes angrily jabs back at those attempting to profile or psychologically analyze him. With no small degree of prodding, Wallace comes clean on several of his faults. He was a terrible husband (having been married multiple times), an absentee father (with a son, Peter, who committed suicide in 1962 at the age of 19), and a relentless workaholic. By his own admission, he’s insecure, highly competitive, and never afraid to add a dramatic flair to his reports. In one of the interviews highlighted by Belkin, 60 Minutes co-worker Morley Safer straight up calls Wallace a prick to his face, and Mike can do nothing but laugh and agree. Later, Belkin shows another piece of that interview where Wallace opens up about his struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts; angry that Morley would ask such a question, but seemingly grateful to get a huge weight off his chest.
The personal bits of Wallace are fleeting and well spaced out, a result of the understandably limited amount of times the reporter was willing to go on camera to speak openly and personally about anything more than his day-to-day work or the state of the television news industry in general. In that respect, Mike Wallace is Here does leave a lot of nagging questions about what defined Belkin’s subject as a human being. His early years are glossed over, as are his failed marriages. The film shows plenty of scholars and colleagues who were heavily critical of Wallace’s sometimes sensational journalistic practices, but rarely do we hear the subject’s genuine feelings about such matters. Wallace attacked like a pitbull, but he was cagey and guarded with personal details; never putting anything out into the public that could potentially be used against him. As such, Belkin’s strict reliance on archival materials to tell Wallace’s story ensures that the biography on display is a sturdy outline of the man’s life, but never anything close to a complete picture. It’s understandable that Belkin would want to highlight his subject’s role in covering Watergate, the Vietnam War, and the network’s fight against big tobacco in 1996 (as showcased in Michael Mann’s exceptional 1999 drama, The Insider, where Christopher Plummer gave one of his career best performances as Wallace), but there’s a lot more to the bigger picture than the stories being profiled.
It is fascinating, however, to note that Mike Wallace is Here is at its most telling whenever the reporter is sitting down with one of his colleagues or journalistic rivals. The interview Safer conducts with Wallace is probably the best in the entire film, but watching two journalists engage in a discourse, no matter how contentious, proves to be utterly fascinating. There’s a great and candid conversation between Wallace and Larry King where both men put all of the misconceptions about their on-screen personas on the table and talk about them openly. Wallace seems taken aback when Oprah Winfrey says she never goes into an interview with a set list of questions drawn up, a scene that rhymes nicely with a later moment where Barbara Walters straight up calls Wallace a puppet for asking questions that others have drafted up. Belkin even opens the film with an interview Wallace conducted with Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly, who thanks the 60 Minutes reporter for influencing his career, something Mike seems mortified to hear, but is also a fact that he can’t credibly deny.
Wallace, for all his faults and despite what his critics think of him, was always keen on stripping away the layers of artifice that sometimes obscured the journalistic process, and it’s something that Belkin has found a way to visual replicate. A great deal of Mike Wallace is Here is told through the use of split-screen, with Wallace on one side of the frame and the person he’s grilling on the other. On television, viewers usually only see the interviewer and their subject’s reactions edited together to show a back and forth. In reality, a great number of interviews are told with two camera set-ups that are constantly running throughout. Instead of showing these interviews as they were seen during their broadcasts, Belkin allows viewers to see footage from both cameras simultaneously. Viewers can watch how Wallace reacts when a subject isn’t giving him a satisfactory answer, and how those same subjects bristle when the reporter cuts too close to the bone. It’s a fascinating and important peek behind the curtain that’s both stylish and well put together, thanks in no small part to the skills of editor Billy McMillin and a perceptive bit of sound design that switches back and forth between audio channels in a manner that makes one think they’re in the editing bay alongside Wallace and his producers.
Mike Wallace is Here is an engaging and energetic look at one of television’s most influential reporters, but it expends so much effort on maintaining its core gimmick that the documentary fails to put its subject’s contributions into a greater context. While the film’s opening and closing attempts to question what journalism would be like without Wallace – suggesting that he might’ve been the last of his kind, which is heavily debatable – the rest of the film doesn’t do much to warrant such a thesis. Mike Wallace is Here is an exceptional view of a professional working at the top of his game and a sort of nostalgic time capsule into a time when journalistic integrity genuinely meant something. It’s less successful as a biography or a media studies lesson. That doesn’t make Mike Wallace is Here any less enthralling, but it does make for a sort of missed opportunity to take a deeper dive into his life and what it all means to us today. At any rate, it’s a treat to watch Wallace in action again, this time from as many angles as possible.
Mike Wallace is Here opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto and Vancity Theatre in Vancouver on Friday, August 9, 2019. It expands to additional Canadian cities throughout the summer and fall.
Check out the trailer for Mike Wallace is Here: