‘Mike Wallace Is Here’ Follows Legendary Newsman Through the Evolution of TV News
Can we blame the late Mike Wallace for Bill O’Reilly? The disgraced former Fox News firebrand makes the claim himself at the beginning of the documentary “Mike Wallace Is Here.” It’s just one of many revealing conversations in this fascinating profile of the famous newsman. For decades Wallace was a fixture on our television screens, in that long era before the internet, his voice becoming one of the recognizable players in famous events ranging from Watergate to the Iranian Revolution. But a key argument made here is that Wallace’s combative, digging interview style set the stage for something else, namely the era of the celebrity news personality thriving on confrontation.
Mixing several interviews Wallace gave throughout the years, the documentary chronicles his life from his early years as a radio personality, doing everything from ads to dramas. In the early ’50s Wallace finds himself working in the new medium of television, proving himself a maverick in the various new programming being invented. Game shows, cigarette commercials, you name it he did it. But what Wallace would soon pioneer blossoms in an early TV show named “Night Beat,” where he would sit down with notable personalities and not only interview them but pose challenging questions. After “Night Beat” is cancelled he wanders in the medium, mostly making money via advertisements for Parliament cigarettes. Then he lands at CBS where work as a correspondent eventually leads to the creation of the show “60 Minutes.” At first a ratings slug, the show soon becomes prominent thanks to the Watergate scandal and Wallace’s relentless interviews with its participants. A new standard is set by the show and Wallace is soon jetting around the world, sitting down with everyone from former mobsters to the Ayatollah Khomeini.
“Mike Wallace Is Here” functions as an absorbing collage. Director Avi Belkin does not go out seeking new interviews or shocking revelations. He uses a sea of historical footage to both profile Wallace and make the case for his influence. By his own account in the interviews featured here, Wallace’s own personal life was consumed by his work. An early marriage in his 20s fell apart and one senses the public persona fused with the private individual. There’s an interview with Larry King where the two men seem to find a common bond in the issue of how their careers have made for terrible husbands. Even Wallace’s tragedies have been experienced under the glare of cameras, such as the tragic 1962 death of his 19-year-old son while mountain climbing in Greece. It’s a harrowing experience to hear Wallace describe finding his son’s trail and then the body below a cliff. But it is fitting that Belkin include such a moment, because Wallace’s fame rests in stripping down an interview subject to get to a more honest place. In an early “Night Beat” interview he bluntly tells Eleanor Roosevelt that while her husband was loved by many, he was quite hated as well (the iconic first lady smiles back like an experienced pro). Belkin’s editor, Billy McMillin, turns the documentary itself into a personification of contemporary media. Footage flashes before us in split screens, intercuts and montages. If Wallace helped pioneer an era where television replaced the newspaper as the mass’s feed of information then this documentary acquires a fitting style.
While much of this footage is fascinating as simply a window into another era (when reporters smoked on the air), it is the interviews that are spread all over this documentary that give us insights into Wallace and how he helped change the industry. Unlike other traditional newsmen of the time he didn’t get his start in the actual world of journalism, this fueled a combative sense of wanting to prove something, which is understandable when Walter Cronkite’s office was just down the hall. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Barbra Streisand (visibly nervous) and Anwar Sadat are just a few of the historical figures that Wallace conversed with. Some interviewees like the journalist Oriana Fallaci are vivacious and grand. She makes a good case for journalists being the ultimate historians while lighting a cigarette. Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman visibly sweats when asked about Watergate, infamously asking Wallace if there’s a question anywhere in his list of accusations. Wallace himself for once looks nervous when sitting down with the Ayatollah Khomeini during the Iranian Revolution, famously apologizing before reading back to Khomeini a comment from Sadat calling him insane. Sadat would later be assassinated by Islamist radicals, and Wallace can’t help but wonder if it was a case of the news directly influencing events. Streisand herself calls Wallace a “son of a bitch” for getting too intrusive.
Belkin isn’t doing a tribute, he also shows Wallace being confronted in interviews with other journalists. There’s also a frank section about his descent into depression and near-suicide following a major lawsuit for libel against CBS by General William C. Westmoreland, who had been accused of falsifying data to keep the Vietnam War raging. But more significantly, Belkin wonders if Wallace’s approach to news created its own Frankenstein. Bill O’Reilly not only calls Wallace a “dinosaur,” he then praises him for being his key influence. Did Wallace help turn news into sensationalism? If so, was it worth it to also present reporting that dug deeper? It’s a complicated question. For every news report on the porn industry or celebrity life, “60 Minutes” with Wallace also had notable moments as when he interviewed tobacco scientist Jeffrey Wigand, who helped expose big tobacco’s cover-up of the effects of nicotine. TV is a ratings game, and maybe sometimes you have to make compromises to then do something greater.
“Mike Wallace Is Here” follows a life through the last 70 years of media evolution in the United States, telling Wallace’s story while capturing the evolution of TV news. He passed away in 2012, leaving a legacy and changed medium behind. It’s not fair to say his era has passed. Sure TV isn’t what it used to be, but compare how often you get your news from a newspaper as opposed to, say, YouTube.
“Mike Wallace Is Here” opens July 26 in select theaters.