One of the giants of American television news broadcasting gets an extended close-up in Mike Wallace Is Here, a compulsively engrossing account of a career notable for its gutsy, confrontational attitude toward the power brokers in business and politics. Best remembered for his long stint on CBS’ ground-breaking 60 Minutes, the hard-driving newsman made history many times by posing tough questions others were afraid to ask, a trait the documentary itself shies away from with regards to the personal life of a man who had a “killer” reputation. The film will be catnip to news junkies, but Mike Wallace is only partially here in this exterior account of his life.
“You’re a son-of-a-bitch,” Barbra Streisand fires off at her interrogator during the course of an interview she must have known would not have been restricted to softball questions. But without Wallace’s sometimes daringly pushy probing, we would never have gotten some of the startled, unsettled answers on record here from the likes of Gen. William Westmoreland, the Shah of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Vladimir Putin and others not normally accustomed to being grilled so boldly.
Born in 1918, long before the advent of television, Wallace, by his own account, was not cut out for a career on a screen of any kind due to dreadful pockmarks, something that’s not apparent from his mature appearance. Zipping without mention over his college years and World War II service in the Pacific, as well as any accounting of his four marriages or alleged womanizing, Avi Belkin’s documentary essentially starts with the first extant examples of its subject’s career on “vapid” TV shows and as a product pitch man. It was only with Night Beat, in 1956, which featured interviews with politicians and activists, that “I became a prick on the air.”
A turning point was the death of his 19-year-old son, Peter, in a hiking accident in Greece in 1962. Footage shows the father in Corinth at the scene of the tragedy, the aftermath of which found him determined that, “I would like to be a serious reporter.”
And so he did. Becoming entrenched at CBS, Wallace was paired with Harry Reasoner by producer Don Hewitt on an initially bi-weekly magazine-style news show, 60 Minutes, beginning in September 1968. It became the No. 1 show in the country and is still on the air, about to enter its second half-century, and there is no doubt that this is where Wallace made his most significant mark. The documentary presents footage of Wallace all around the world, nearly always able to gain access to global hotspots, in unusually blunt conversations with the world’s famous and infamous and leaving his vast audience in no doubt as to what he thought about world conflicts of the moment and the behavior of the marquee players of the day. Everyone knew he was tough and never backed down.
At one of the show’s peak periods, in 1982, Westmoreland, the chief of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam, slapped a $120 million libel case on Wallace and CBS for their “smear” campaign against him. The documentary covers this extensively, as it does another big crusade in which Wallace was involved, against big tobacco and its use of nicotine, a complicated story that became the 1999 feature The Insider, in which Wallace was portrayed by Christopher Plummer. Wallace never mentions when he might have quit smoking, but he did a lot of it on camera. All the same, he worked.
For anyone remotely interested in American news broadcast history and one of its foremost practitioners, Israeli documentary and feature director Belkin’s portrait will provide a meaty repast. But it does leave one hungry for more insights into the totality of the subject’s life, what gave him his drive and aggressive, seemingly fearless personality, his wives and surviving child (Fox News broadcaster Chris Wallace, with whom the father had no contact until the boy was 16) or any philosophical conclusions he had reached about power and those who wield it. In the doc’s final stretch, we learn that Wallace became so self-absorbed and depressed in the mid-1980s that he attempted suicide, yet nothing conveyed in the film at all prepares the viewer to understand this descent.
Wallace was clearly a very ambitious, capable and confident man, but the film, as absorbing as it is, is two-dimensional.
Production companies: Drexler Films, Delirio Films
Director: Avi Belkin
Producers: Rafael Marmor, John Battsek, Peggy Drexler, Avi Belkin, Christopher Leggett
Executive producer: Angus Wall
Editor: Billy McMillin
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)