The archival-footage-only documentary has certain advantages but also significant flaws when it comes to contextualizing subjects. “Mike Wallace is Here” thus capitalizes on an enormous trove of fascinating material featuring the legendary “60 Minutes” newsman, while only fitfully doing more than flag highlights from his larger-than-life career.
What director Avi Belkin fritters around, but doesn’t focus on enough, is the extent to which Wallace’s brand of confrontational interviews that give the title its meaning – and the commodification of news “60 Minutes” helped usher into television – has seriously impacted broadcast journalism, often in problematic ways.
It’s telling, for example, when Wallace is shown interviewing Bill O’Reilly at the height of his Fox News days, blanching when the bombastic host draws a line directly from Wallace’s career to his own. As self-serving as that is, O’Reilly is on to something in terms of “60 Minutes’” role in transforming news into showbiz, and thus a profit center.
An equally enlightening sequence comes during a media-ethics discussion, in which Wallace looks and sounds genuinely taken aback when the Wall Street Journal’s Frederick Taylor dismisses what Wallace does, saying to his face, “I don’t think it’s journalism. I think it’s show business.”
Those larger issues – about Wallace’s contribution to journalism’s legacy, and where we currently are at a pivotal time for the industry – would benefit immensely from third-party voices, speaking in the here and now. (Media critic-in-chief Donald Trump appears in the film, from an old interview with Wallace.)
Despite its shortcomings, “Mike Wallace is Here” is well worth watching, primarily for Wallace’s interviews with a who’s who of celebrities and world leaders – augmented by outtakes, raw material and previously unseen archival footage – as well as interviews conducted with Wallace by the likes of Barbara Walters and his “60 Minutes” colleagues.
“Why are you sometimes such a [jerk]?” Morley Safer asks him – Wallace doesn’t really object to the characterization – while Steve Kroft speaks of Wallace’s tendency to “dominate” interviews, even with some of the planet’s most powerful people.
Belkin delves into Wallace’s biography – his four marriages, being a mostly absentee father, the devastating death of his son Peter in 1962, and his life-threatening struggles with depression.
The most interesting history, however, surrounds the initial skepticism he had to overcome to be taken seriously at CBS News, the kindred spirit he found in “60 Minutes” producer Don Hewitt, and how they stumbled on the newsmagazine’s signature style – including the ambush interviews – largely through a process of trial and error.
Wallace is shown interviewing everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Vladimir Putin, coaxing the Russian president to respond to a question in perfect English. The latter was conducted in 2005 – the year before the newsman retired – underscoring his career’s staggering longevity. (Wallace died in 2012, at the age of 93.)
In the press notes, Belkin says the documentary “originated with a question: how did we get to the place broadcast journalism is at today?”
“Mike Wallace is Here” works best – and to that extent, quite well – as an extended snapshot of the way things were. Yet while its subject’s extraordinary work can tell us a lot about the way things are, the format blunts its value in answering that question or connecting those dots as the clock tick, tick, ticks from then to now.
“Mike Wallace is Here” premieres in select theaters on July 26.