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.