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Mike Wallace is Here (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 1, 2020

Mike Wallace is Here


Featuring archival footage of Mike Wallace, Malcolm X, Bette Davis, Salvador Dali, Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Leona Helmsley, Jimmy Fratianno, Paul Meadlo, Bill O’Reilly, Johnny Carson, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Nixon, Ben Bradlee, Anwar Sadat, Diana Dors, Manuel Noriega, Emile Zola Berman, Arthur Miller, Oriana Fallaci, Thomas Pike, John Ehrlichman, Drew Pearson, Lillian Roth, Thomas Hart Benton, Shirley MacLaine, Gen. William Westmoreland, Rod Serling, Jeffrey Wigand, Ayatollah Khomeini, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Morley Safer, Larry King, Frank Lloyd Wright, Chris Wallace, Barbara Walters, Kirk Douglas, Steve Kroft, Lesley Stahl, Ed Bradley and Barbra Streisand.

Directed by Avi Belkin.

Distributed by Magnolia Pictures. 91 minutes. Rated PG-13.

In an archival interview clip here, legendary 60 Minutes journalist Mike Wallace acknowledges that he was not necessarily a good husband or father. He was away from home too much. The work always came first. In fact, if he had a call from his wife and a call from CBS at the same time, he would take CBS every time, he admitted.

This trait may not have made him a good family man, but it did make him a heck of a good journalist.

And, in a period in history when good journalism is under attack from all sides, it is vital that we remember how important a strong and vital press is to the country, and to the world.

Therefore, smartly, this documentary downplays his personal life. Oh sure, it touches on the vital stuff – his childhood, his early show biz roots, his finding one of his sons dead, his multiple marriages, his depression and suicide attempt – but Mike Wallace is Here spends most of its time being an study of 20th Century history and one newsman’s relationship to it.

And it is all done with archival footage – either of 60 Minutes and some of Wallace’s previous jobs (the black and white footage from the early TV series The Mike Wallace Interview is particularly arresting) and several times where the script was flipped and Wallace consented to be the interviewee rather than the interviewer.

We may not always see through the man – though a good deal of insight is to be gleaned here – but we always, always see the newsman.

Wallace was known for his incisive interviewing skills, and those are on display here. A mixture of real curiosity and a dogged determination to get to the truth, Wallace was never afraid to ask the hard questions and would not let his interview subjects deflect and wriggle away. Interestingly, when he was on the receiving side of the questions, he would sometimes try to rebuff the hard questions – a fact that he acknowledged was slightly hypocritical – before eventually giving the hard answer.

Mike Wallace is Here is not merely a timeline of the life of a man – which it is – but it also acts as a quick history of the world in the 20th Century. Wallace interviews everyone – politicians, religious leaders, corporate leaders, criminals, actors, authors, military men, whistleblowers, dictators, architects, journalists. Through his questions, and the subjects sometimes begrudging answers, we relive some of the most consequential occurrences of the last century.

As far as his own life, it shows a boy who goes into radio because he was self-conscious of his acne and his looks. Through talent and circumstance, he becomes a jack-of-all-trades in the early days of television: game show host, actor, announcer, pitchman. He’d do anything. In fact, he had to live down his reputation as a TV hack when he decided his true interest lay in investigative journalism and interviewing.

He realized this interest through two groundbreaking shows – Night Beat (1955-1957) and The Mike Wallace Interview (1957-1958). Both were simple in theory, Wallace and someone of interest in the news sitting and smoking and Wallace tossing hard questions at the subject. Both were acclaimed and revolutionary TV, but both also cause controversy and lawsuits, leading to early cancellations.

Eventually Wallace found the venue for his hard-boiled interviewing style when he was hired to co-host a new CBS “news magazine” (a totally new concept at the time) called 60 Minutes. The rest is history.

Mike Wallace is Here is a treasure trove of snippets from old interviews from the 37 years he worked for the show. It is also a reminder of a time when news was a loss-leader for the networks, when the truth was the dominant cause of news reporting, not ratings.

Which is not to say that kind of journalism is extinct now, it is just more uncommon. The film opens with a clip of Wallace interviewing former FOX “News” host Bill O’Reilly. Wallace obviously had little respect for the man, referring to him as not a journalist, but an op-ed columnist. “That wasn’t an interview, that was a lecture,” he told O’Reilly after showing a clip of O’Reilly shouting down one of his guests.

However, O’Reilly surprised Wallace by saying that he grew up idolizing Wallace and he was just the natural progression from Wallace’s interview style. This obviously stung Wallace, because while it was obviously not completely right, it was also not completely wrong.

In a world where the president brays on and on about fake news, Mike Wallace is Here is a bracing reminder of how vital a strong fourth estate is to the world. It is a smart look at a time when the press was respected. And hopefully it will be a map to get us back to that place.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: August 3, 2019.

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