Tag Archives: B

MIKE WALLACE IS HERE

Producer: Rafael Marmor, John Battsek, Peggy Drexler, Christopher Leggett and Avi Belkin
Director: Avi Belkin
Writer: 
Stars: Mike Wallace
Studio: Magnolia Pictures

B

Avi Belkin’s documentary makes the point that Mike Wallace, who became famous as the “gotcha” correspondent on “60 Minutes,” represented a new kind of television “journalism”—one that, as the once-dominant king of Fox News bloviating talking heads Bill O’Reilly says in an interview with Wallace included here, spawned the pugnacious style he and others of his ilk practice. Given the state of twenty-first century cable news, that’s a pretty horrendous suggestion, and it took Wallace aback even more than a decade ago; the look on his face speaks volumes. In other interview segments, Barbra Striesand tells Wallace he’s a son-of-a-bitch, and even his friend Morley Safer asks Wallace only half-jokingly why he’s such a prick.

But while Wallace’s importance in the advent of the “ambush” television interview is hardly overlooked here, it’s just part of the mosaic of his life that Belkin draws in his hectic (sometimes overly so) cascade of hyperkinetically-edited archival footage, often further exacerbated by the use of split screens, and observational commentary. “Mike Wallace Is Here” is a full-scale biographical study, going back to Wallace’s troubled childhood and his relentless ambition, which led to a breathless career as a pitchman, would-be actor and announcer before he found his niche on hard-hitting late-night TV interview programs.

That led to his decision to try to segue into serious journalism at CBS News—a move that initially irritated some of his established colleagues there, but eventually brought him renown, even if some of it was rather grudging, and his repute as a distinguished elder statesman of television journalism—a status he earned by dint of his long-time presence on Don Hewitt’s ground-breaking news magazine, the uncertain beginnings of which the film sketches with admirable clarity.

Belkin concentrates on Wallace’s infamous in-your-face investigative pieces and often stinging sessions with celebrities from the worlds of politics and entertainment, but gives ample coverage to what are probably his most famous run-ins. One is his report on enemy troop strength during the Vietnam War, which led General William Westmoreland to file a massive libel suit against him and CBS that was instrumental in providing a template for responding to legal threats.

The other is the piece Wallace, a heavy smoker (and former cigarette spokesman), did with tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, a story that others at the network tried to spike but was eventually broadcast, helping to break down the walls of silence protecting industry secrets—and preventing cigarettes from being regulated. It’s a dramatic story that was in fact adapted for the screen, very well, by Michael Mann in “The Insider.”

Belkin, however, is not concerned simply with Wallace’s professional career, though he handles that expertly. He also deals with his subject’s personal life, using excerpts of interviews of Wallace conducted by others, like Safer, that are sometimes contentious. Through them, and interviews with Wallace’s son Chris and friends, we’re told of family problems caused by Wallace’s frequent absences and penchant to put work first. Coverage is also given to the tragic death of another of Wallace’s sons, Peter, in 1962, that led him to reconsider his priorities. Yet the effects of it lingered; prodded by Safer, Wallace opens up about his clinical depression and suicidal thoughts in his later years.

“Mike Wallace Is Here” can be rather light on context—interviewees aren’t identified until the closing credits (though many are so famous as to make that unnecessary), for example, and the historical background to many events is presumed rather than explained. That will cause little difficulty to viewers of a certain age, who will have lived through the controversies that are alluded to and remember them well. Younger viewers, however, might find themselves at sea occasionally.

That’s a small price to pay, though. Though it could probe more deeply, this is a compelling portrait of a newsman who, despite his undeniable flaws, made a difference, in both style and substance.

SWORD OF TRUST

Producer: Ted Speaker and Lynn Shelton
Director: Lynn Shelton
Writer: Lynn Shelton and Mike O'Brien
Stars: Marc Maron, Jillian Bell, Jon Bass, Michaela Watkins, Toby Huss, Dan Bakkedahl, Tim Paul, Whitmer Thomas and Lynn Shelton
Studio:  IFC Films

B

An uneven but genial comedy that riffs on America’s love of conspiracy theories, Lynn Shelton’s “Sword of Trust” doesn’t allow the improvisational underpinnings of her creative method get out of hand. The picture isn’t tightly structured and leaves room for the performers to exercise their inventive genes, but it’s not a meandering mess; while it shambles a bit, it doesn’t become one..

The person around whom the story revolves is Mel (Marc Maron), a transplant from New Mexico who runs a Birmingham, Alabama, pawn shop but gets little help from his internet-obsessed clerk Nathaniel (Jon Bass). He’s a cynical sort of guy who still feels burnt by an old girlfriend (Shelton), a druggie and self-professed poet whom he finally says no to when she comes into the store to ask for money.

He’s also visited by a couple, Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins), who ask about what they can get for a Civil War-era Union sword, complete with scabbard, which Cynthia has just inherited from her deceased grandfather. (She’d expected to get his house, but it already belonged to the bank.)

The sword, it seems, came with a couple of other items. One was a lengthy letter from her rather addled granddad, which claims that it was the sword of a Union general (either Sherman or Sheridan) who surrendered it to General Lee. That was accompanied by a painting of the supposed surrender and a certificate of authenticity. Together they all provide documentation of the “fact” that the South won the war and history has lied about the Confederate victory ever since.

Mel, of course, considers the story nuts and proposes to pay the women a few hundred dollars, an offer they dismiss. But when Nathaniel immediately takes to his computer and finds a bunch of believers—the so-called Invictucians (presumably derived, in somewhat scrambled form, from the Latin for “The Undefeated”), who are willing to pay big bucks for “proof” of the South’s victory, he reconsiders. Dickering eventually results in him and the two women agreeing to split any profit fifty-fifty.

From there the deal turns into a road trip in the back of a box truck by Mel, Nathaniel, Cynthia and Mary to negotiate with a rich potential buyer (Dan Bakkedahl), a journey arranged by the collector’s crusty surrogate Hog Jowls (Toby Huss). Along the way, they have the chance to open up to one another in monologues the actors clearly worked out with Shelton as back stories for their characters. Intervening at a couple of points are a couple of doofus backwoods types, Zeke (Tim Paul) and Jake (Whitmer Thomas), who want the sword for themselves.

The final act of the movie—the negotiation session and its aftermath—involves lots of dialogue, some surprise twists, and an outcome that mixes in some sentiment but leaves room for a bittersweet aftertaste.

“Sword of Trust” hardly goes easy on the conspiracy-minded Invicturians, but it treats them in a laid-back manner that’s less knife-edged than mildly condescending. And its attitude toward the non-believers, quite frankly, is no less mocking, though they’re necessarily allowed a degree of depth lacking in those they’re attempting to scam. The cast is fine across the board, with pragmatic Maron and jittery Bell the standouts, and the though obviously a low-budget affair, the picture looks okay (the production design was by John Lavin and the camerawork by Jason Oldak). Though there are a few longueurs and clumsy moments, Shelton and editor Tyler L. Cook generally keep things moving along.

“Sword of Trust” isn’t the cutting satire one might have expected from such a premise, but it’s an amiable ramble with some amusing, and occasionally touching, oddballs.