'Mike Wallace Is Here': A Newsman Who Shined A Spotlight — And Basked In It

'Mike Wallace is Here' features decades of never-before-seen footage from the 60 Minutes vault.  (Magnolia Pictures)

In the interview clip that opens Mike Wallace is Here, a documentary about the legendarily feisty 60 Minutes interrogator, Bill O'Reilly is shown a clip where he berates his guests, telling most of them to "shut up." To Wallace, this is evidence that O'Reilly is more an Op-ed columnist than a journalist, interested in other voices only as a means to assert his own. O'Reilly gives two telling, if contradictory, responses at once: "You're a dinosaur," he says. And then "You're the driving force behind my career."

With this scene, director Avi Belkin establishes the same tough-but-fair attitude toward Wallace that Wallace himself has used to describe his hard-nosed approach to broadcasting. Getting called a "dinosaur" by a bloviating pundit like Bill O'Reilly is likely a badge of honor for Wallace, who can be said to represent the old-school journalistic integrity that he picked up early in his tenure at CBS, alongside the trusted and avuncular Walter Cronkite. But "You're the driving force behind my career" connects Wallace with a performative style that's more about creating riveting television than learning substantive truths. And that's the ambiguous space in which this mesmerizing film operates.

Belkin keeps much of Mike Wallace is Here inside the television box, building a profile clip by clip and holding Wallace in dialogue with himself. In a one-on-one interview with Wallace, his 60 Minutes colleague Morley Safer offers the most intimate, end-of-the-line questions about his career, but mostly as a prelude for Belkin to do the exploring. Enough footage exists of Wallace in action that no traditional talking-head interviews are necessary, which gives the impression of a life lived entirely in front of the camera, at the expense of everything and everyone else. He worked to move the cultural dialogue forward. He also worked to serve his ego and secure his own legacy.

One longstanding mark against Wallace is that he didn't come from a journalistic background. He just wanted to be on television. Before and between gigs as a serious broadcaster, he's shown appearing as a pitchman for Parliament cigarettes, Ajax cleaning powder, and Revlon make-up, and that commercial vigor is baked into his persona. His reputation as the ultimate "gotcha" journalist, earned first on groundbreaking shows like Night Beat and The Mike Wallace Interview, is tied both to an instinct for good theater and a no-nonsense hunger for the bottom line. He was going to get his answers or make his subjects sweat profusely through their denials and dissembling.

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Wallace's commercialism made it difficult for him to gain respect in Cronkite's newsroom in the '60s, but his fortunes changed dramatically when Don Hewitt, an executive producer, approached him in 1968 with the idea for 60 Minutes, a show inspired by the format of Life magazine. The show performed dismally at first, but when Watergate broke, it pounced on the secondary and tertiary characters in the investigation, many of them sources Wallace knew from his time covering Richard Nixon's presidential campaign. As 60 Minutes grew into a perennial ratings giant, so too did Wallace's prominence as an interrogator who could keep eyes glued to the set.

Mike Wallace is Here runs through the greatest hits of Wallace's career, like his audacious interview with Ayatollah Khomeini during the hostage crisis and an exposé on General William Westmoreland that brought a $120 million libel suit against CBS. But many of the clips Belkin digs up are mirrors that reflect some insight into Wallace himself, like an exchange with Larry King where they discuss the contrast between their interview styles before getting to some uncomfortable similarities in their personal priorities. King accounts for his multiple divorces by saying he'd respond to an urgent call from CNN before an urgent call from his wife. Wallace repeatedly admits to his failings as a husband and father.

Belkin arrives at a subtle and complicated assessment of Wallace's legacy that ties back to that first exchange with O'Reilly. The film makes the case that Wallace's dogged commitment to getting answers is journalism in its purest form, holding powerful public figures to account. It also makes the case that Wallace opened the door for charlatans to swallow up air time and turn themselves into the stars of their own primetime dramas. He may have been the best interviewer on TV, but he never transcended the medium.

Copyright 2019 NPR.

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