"Why is Mike Wallace such a prick?" Morley Safer asks his fellow veteran newsman in Mike Wallace is Here from director Avi Belkin (Winding). It's unclear when the conversation takes place, but both Safer and Wallace, seemingly amused by the implications, feel like old friends. Wallace waves it off a moment, admits it, and is ready to move on. But he also seems wildly uncomfortable answering questions; the bulldog of interviews in the hot seat for once.
It's a fair query—Wallace, who died in 2012 at 93, was indeed known for aggressive interviews, but as we learn in Belkin's film, his fearlessness and dedication helped shape the face of broadcast journalism as we know it, and led to some of the most famous interviews in the medium's history.
Wallace began in radio, phasing over to television in the 1950s as a performer,
commercial spokesman and, eventually, host of the hard-hitting 1957 interview program Night Beat. There, he cut his teeth during interviews with politicians, gangsters and the famous. There, he developed his now-infamous unflinching style. It was a first in a world of Cronkites and Murrows who, while well-liked, didn't often speak truth to the powerful, and though the show was short-lived, it changed everything. By 1968, with public confidence in broadcast news waning, the Wallace-led 60 Minutes tore the roof off, inventing the televised news magazine format, which started slowly but ultimately became the most-watched news program of all time; a sea of impersonators from 20/20 to Nightline followed.
Belkin examines as much as he can in a mere 90 minutes, but fails in fleshing out Wallace's back story in any meaningful way. We learn briefly of failed marriages and the death of his son, but other than a few video and audio clips of the man vaguely talking news, we see Wallace's impact on journalism through old interview footage far more than we dive into his motivations. The exchange with Safer is but one of numerous examples of his own discomfort being interviewed, and while this makes him seem all the more human, it's fleeting, as are behind-the-scenes moments of a disarmed or enraged or exhausted Wallace.
Elsewhere, snippets of interviews with the legendary and infamous likes of Bette Davis, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and far too many others to count remind us of his chops, but without any identifying text associated with lesser-known figures around during Wallace's tenure, those of a certain age might feel lost before the credits identify a number of those people. Belkin, in fact, seems more enamored with a certain era of journalism than he does with the people featured in his film, and while it makes sense to compose a love letter to a hero, or to feel like one was born in the wrong era—especially a documentarian—Mike Wallace himself probably would have liked it more had Belkin opted to experiment a little, or at least drag out some of the old guard to get at the meatier and more personal stories.
+Wallace is a bulldog; cool journalism history
-Not enough background; not everyone knows who the interviewees were
Mike Wallace is Here
Directed by Belkin
Center for Contemporary Arts, PG-13, 90 min.