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.