The road from Walter Cronkite and his generation of stoic newsreaders to the wild-eyed, pro-wrestling-style rantings of Alex Jones is paved through Mike Wallace. That’s one of the takeaways, not all of them positive and certainly not all hagiographic, that viewers can glean from Mike Wallace Is Here, a complex portrait of the influential TV reporter famous for his confrontational interviews.
Director Avi Belkin opens his movie with a late-career sit-down between Wallace and Bill O’Reilly, who was then dominating the Darwinian jungle of cable news, finding in the two men’s friendly sparring some uncomfortable insights. When Wallace castigates his competitor’s combative, bellicose, interruption-fueled interviewing style as unbecoming to his profession, O’Reilly dismisses Wallace as a “dinosaur” who doesn’t understand the entertainment-media complex of the 21st century. At the same time, O’Reilly says, he learned his style from Wallace, and he fashions himself one of Wallace’s media heirs.
O’Reilly can have it both ways because Wallace was a figure complex enough to be interpreted through multiple lenses — the vital muckraker and interrogator of the powerful, who held world leaders’ feet to the fire; the cruel progenitor of sound bite-angling gotcha questions who laid the groundwork for tabloid news talk — and Belkin trains his camera on all of them.
Eschewing the standard formalities of the biographical doc, Belkin tells the journalism titan’s story without title cards, without new interviews with talking heads singing Wallace’s praises, without information about his subject’s birth and death, without a particularly coherent timeline.
Instead, Mike Wallace Is Here is a clip show par excellence, its content collaged and curated entirely from CBS’s Mike Wallace archive. Belkin and his editor, Billy McMillin, reportedly scoured through 1,400 hours of footage and spent a year editing the final product, which premiered to raves at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Though hopscotching between time periods and thematic focuses, the film offers a rough survey of key moments in Wallace’s life and career: His foray into bulldog interviewing, on the pioneering black-and-white series Night Beat; his ironic tenure as a TV pitchman for products, including for the tobacco industry he would later help to dismantle; the death of his son Peter at age 19, and the emotional scars it left on Wallace; his decades-long contributions to 60 Minutes and its impact on television news; Wallace’s battle with depression, and the lawsuits CBS has faced, and dodged, for Wallace’s reporting.
Along the way, we’re treated to spicy, revealing exchanges with Barbara Streisand, Oprah Winfrey, Bette Davis, Vladimir Putin, Arthur Miller, Salvador Dali and a young Donald Trump, among many others. (The latter, exhibiting trademark braggadocio, dismisses the idea of entering politics, and decries leaders who say “mean” things for no reason.)
By spelunking those rich archives, Belkin is able to pluck perfectly illustrative clips to drive home his points. The director has obvious respect for Wallace, but he’s unafraid to criticize when it’s warranted, albeit from his perch of hindsight. When an interviewer asks Wallace about his multiple marriages, the subject bristles at a question so clearly beyond the pale. Belkin then cuts to Wallace asking the exact same question of Larry King. Wallace similarly demurs when asked if Peter’s death continues to affect him, but as Belkin counterpunches, he had no problem probing Leona Helmsley about the death of her son.
Wallace was a prickly workaholic who seemed to have a different standard for himself than for his interviewees. The movie’s darkest foray suggests Wallace may have even been culpable in the assassination of Anwar Sadat, because he asked the question that led to Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for Sadat’s removal at the hands of Egyptian Muslims. Brushes with mortality abound: In a chillingly prophetic sit-down with Malcolm X, he asks the militant leader about his most fervent enemies, prompting the response, “I probably am a dead man already.”
More often than not, though, Wallace’s ability to hold the powerful accountable did a demonstrable public service. His exposés of war crimes during Vietnam, which included a soldier speaking on the record about murdering innocent Vietnamese women and children — and babies, a designation Wallace presses — are shocking by any generational standard of television. As the multiyear sprawl of Watergate eked toward its operatic finale, Wallace interviewed, and mercilessly grilled, all the president’s men on national television, in a manner incalculably more impactful than, say, the Mueller Report.
Yet, were Mike Wallace to still be alive today (he died in 2012), his depression would likely be worsening. He would be watching sordid histories rhyme, as Belkin suggests without driving home the point. Citing the then-recent assassinations of Dr. King, Malcolm X and two Kennedys, Wallace bemoans a “unique strain of violence” in the American populace.
And in his time, too, he confronted institutional attacks on a free press. Before there was Trump and the “fake news media,” there was Spiro Agnew labeling reporters “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Aside from the number of syllables, I’m not sure much has changed.
MIKE WALLACE IS HERE. Director: Avi Belkin; Distributer: Magnolia; Rated: PG-13; Now playing at Lake Worth Playhouse