Someone, I believe it may have been fellow 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer, asks Mike Wallace towards the end of director Avi Belkin’s documentary Mike Wallace Is Here if he wants to be the last man standing and Wallace nods. In the end, it was Safer, out of that original group of 60 Minutes reporters and correspondents that included Wallace, Harry Reasoner and Ed Bradley, who was the last man standing when he announced his retirement on May 11, 2016 and died a week later. But Wallace’s retirement on March 2006 followed by Bradley’s death by the end of that year marked the end of an era for the revolutionary newsmagazine. Mike Wallace personified the no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners brand of journalism that defined 60 Minutes. Many have tried to imitate Wallace’s brash, aggressive interviewing style. Even the now discredited Bill O’Reilly admitted to Wallace that he inspired him even as calls Wallace a “dinosaur.” But what imitators like O’Reilly forget is that it’s not only about style…it’s also about substance. Wallace found that substance on the narrative beats he learned as actor and pitchman in the late 40s/early 50s, using those skills to probe, dig out, and force his subjects to reveal themselves. And, unlike O’Reilly and his cable news cohorts, he also listened. He paid attention. In the process, Wallace built a persona that became inseparable from the human being. Watching him, you got a sense that what you see is what you get.
Mike Wallace Is Here is the ultimate talking head documentary even as it abstains from interviewing, in present time, those close to Wallace. Don’t expect to hear his son, Fox anchor and political commentator Chris Wallace, wax melancholic about his father (although the film includes a clip of Chris interviewing him) or 60 Minutes colleagues Leslie Stahl and Steve Kroft talk about his ups and downs. Belkin and editor Billy McKillin have built this documentary around interviews by and with Wallace dating back to the mid-50s, as well as footage from his early days as an actor and pitchman. They have distilled 698 hours of footage as well as over 11,000 pages of transcripts (from CBS News’ and the University of Texas-Austin’s archives, among other sources) into a brisk, riveting 90-minute documentary that is both biographical and an exploration of how U.S. journalism shaped, was shaped and is being shaped by the world around it and the mostly white men working in the field.
Wallace started his career as a radio announcer —he felt his acne-scarred face was perfect for the medium— before he made his jump to television where he tried his hand at everything, from acting to pitching products to hosting game shows before hosting his own one-on-one television program, Night Beat (1956-57) where developed his distinctive interviewing style. The show was picked up nationally by ABC and renamed The Mike Wallace Interview until it was canceled in 1958 due to the large number of lawsuits against it (this was a time when brands sponsored an entire program and anything that might endanger that sponsorship was a no-no).
He continued working on television and it was while he was on assignment for a show that he learned of the disappearance of his 19-year-old son Peter in Greece. Flying to Greece with a camera crew, Wallace found his son’s body at the end of a cliff. The incident proved to be a turning point for Wallace who decides to focus his energies on journalism. Easier said than done for a man who came from the world of entertainment and was looked down by the likes of Walter Cronkite as soon as he joined CBS News. Wallace had a lot to prove and he did, going after stories the way hounds chase after a fox. Then, just as he was about to call it quits and join the Nixon administration, CBS News producer Don Hewitt —as much of an outsider as Wallace— approaches him with the idea of being one of the two lead reporters/presenters of a new show styled after Life magazine: 60 Minutes. The show didn’t do well at the beginning, but then came Watergate and the rest, as they say, is history. Wallace used his contacts to interview every single one of the parties involved in the scandal, especially Counsel to the President John Ehrlichman who sweats profusely in his interview as Wallace reads out loud each one of the crimes the Nixon Administration is accused of.
The list of stories and people covered by Wallace is long but Belkin chooses wisely. More than a greatest hits compilation, Belkin has chosen those interviews and stories that not only show Wallace at the height of his powers but that also offer a critique on his persona and style. Occasionally shown on split screens, with Wallace occupying one half of the screen and his subject the other, we not only see the actual interview but the preparations leading to it, the conversations that happen off-camera, the animosity between the two sparrers that leads up to the actual bout. Barbra Streisand calls him an “S.O.B.” on camera and even his good friend Morley Safer asks, “Why are you such a prick?” Belkin draws a straight line between his interview with the Ayatollah Khomeini and the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (on the interview, Khomeini calls on the Egyptians to overthrow Sadat). Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, in the film’s best moment, gives Wallace a lesson in journalism by declaring that journalists write history the moment it happens. Wallace is reluctant this notion even though that is precisely what he, his producers and cameramen did with each and every one of these interviews and stories. Like the best documentarians and historians, Belkin shows through these interviews how history repeats itself, how we are caught in this perpetual loop and how, sometimes, these interviews also anticipate history. Sadat, for example, condemns Khomeini’s brand of Islam as one that goes against its precepts much in the same way many critics of ISIS have done in the past few years. A young Donald Trump brags about how he could fix this country and his negotiating prowess. And Vice President Spiro Agnew’s attacks on the media are no different than those currently made by the aforementioned orange-hued one, now sitting in the Oval Office.
Not everybody likes it when they are put on the spot and in Wallace’s case that came in the form of a 1984 libel lawsuit against CBS and Wallace by retired general William Westmoreland over the documentary The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception. Then, in 1996, CBS’ law department tried to kill a 60 Minutes story about tobacco industry whistleblower Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (which also inspired Michael Mann’s The Insider). Wallace saw in both incidents the beginning of the end for investigative journalism, at least in those outlets controlled by conglomerates. Time has proven him right.
But what about Mike Wallace the man? He emerges when interviewed by his colleagues in the business: Safer, Stahl, Barbara Walters. And even then, he is in control. He can be as evasive as the people he has interviewed, defiantly answering his contenders, questioning their interviewing techniques with an outraged “been there done that” tone. But, at least in the footage selected, we get a sense that he acknowledges that, deep down, he needs to be as honest with his colleagues as he expects his interview subjects to be with him. So, he admits to being a bad father, a workaholic, of suffering from depression and even attempting suicide.
At times, I felt that in his decision to show Wallace in action, to show and not tell, to avoid incorporating other opinions that might throw some light on the man, that Bilken missed the opportunity to dig deep on the consequences of Wallace’s brand of journalism. Showing a back-and-forth between Wallace and Wall Street Journal editor Frederick Taylor during a televised round table discussion at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University about whether what Wallace is doing is show business or journalism barely touches the issue. Good journalism can be the catalyst for change —just look at how the reporting of Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism and political analyst Jay Fonseca about corruption in Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s administration led to the protests that resulted in his resignation. But it can also be manipulated and twisted to serve an agenda and there’s no better example of that than the interview with Khomeini. It’s the only flaw, albeit an important one, in a documentary that is superbly researched and annotated, a road map to how we got here.