Mike Wallace Is Here (Avi Belkin, 2019) 4 out of 4 stars.
The quintessence of masterful archival filmmaking, director Avi Belkin’s Mike Wallace Is Here plunges us into the life and career of the late, great newsman Mike Wallace (1918-2012), who here seems as vibrant as ever, as well as eternal. Mike Wallace is indeed here, for now and evermore. That holds especially true given that, for better or worse, his aggressive reportorial style has influenced many journalists at work today. Belkin emphasizes this point (or at least its possibility) in an opening sequence featuring an interview between Wallace and the (since disgraced) Bill O’Reilly, in which the latter credits the former for paving the way for the likes of him. Wallace is taken aback, but perhaps there is truth in the comparison. Still, showman and showboater though he could be, Wallace believed in the power of journalism to illuminate, and always sought the truth (as he saw it). I’m not sure that his would-be disciples are quite so idealistic.
Perhaps best known, in this second decade of the 21st-century, as the founding host of the influential CBS news-magazine show 60 Minutes, Wallace came to the world of news from an early career as actor and product pitchman. One of the many great joys in Belkin’s documentary is how the younger Wallace, hawking Parliament cigarettes or performing sketches, morphed into the hard-hitting presenter of the late-night TV interview program Night Beat, in which he took pleasure in challenging his guests with sometimes very direct questions. The broadcast helped create the image of Wallace we remember so well, relishing the squirm of the subject as he moves in for the journalistic kill, like a predator on a blood scent. As his longtime 60 Minutes colleague Morley Safer asks in another opening interview, “Why are you sometimes such a prick?” For sure. But he was also a very smart guy whose interrogations had purpose beyond the bullying. Barbra Streisand may have accurately called him a “son of a b****,” but he was one with intent.
Frequently jumping back and forth in time, but nevertheless moving the narrative carefully forward from past to almost-present, Belkin delivers what feels like a comprehensive, fully human portrait of a man so much more real than mere myth or legend. This is no hagiography – far from it – but a worthy tribute to Wallace, deep flaws and all. Married 4 times, and an apparently distant father to his two sons (one of whom is current Fox News anchor Chris Wallace), Wallace was hardly perfect, but Belkin, choosing and editing his footage with great care, allows room for a fair amount of self-analysis and introspection, especially after Wallace’s oldest son Peter died in 1962, at 19. Mike Wallace was brash, querulous, brilliant and insightful, and is sorely missed. Then again, thanks in part to this terrific homage, he is very much still with us.
Want to know more about the film? Check out my interview with the director!