Mike Wallace Is Here
2019, NR, 90 min. Directed by Avi Belkin.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 2, 2019
Are the sins of modern TV news all to be laid at the feet of Mike Wallace? His presence has been a constant for decades, from the groundbreaking Night Beat, through The Mike Wallace Interview and, for another generation, as 60 Minutes's resident attack dog – or, as Wallace describes himself, "nosy and insistent, and not to be pushed aside." That determination is at the heart of Mike Wallace Is Here, an inversion of the normal documentary hagiographic format. Instead, it's an unflinching examination of a legacy of negatives and positives that extend far beyond the newsroom. It also doesn't spare its subject's feelings: As his 60 Minutes co-host Morley Safer asks in one of the all-time great interview questions, "Why are you sometimes such a prick?"
Documentarian Avi Belkin constructs a portrait of a man who defined American TV journalism for decades, and put the screws to celebrities, politicians, plutocrats, and the powerful. If you weren't prepared to submit to his blunt, brusque questioning, then you weren't ready for the increasing intensity of the public forum. The subframe for Belkin's narrative is the huge number of interviews of (as opposed to by) Wallace, often by his peers, and he is revealed as cantankerous, brutal, often the prick that Safer saw. Yet what's also clear is how much of Wallace the man revealed in his interview techniques. The answer, over time, is a surprising amount, not least due to the humungous chip that the former laundry detergent shill carried throughout his career.
Belkin has clearly been studying the montage/mosaic techniques of Fog of War-era Errol Morris, or Alex Gibney at his most format-busting. Sometimes, it's almost too kinetic. However, it also shows the complications of the man: not simply contradictions, but actual hypocrisy, refusing to answer the same questions that he is so quick to pose. Not even simply that: to call such questions not worthy of an answer, of beneath real journalism. It's his love of celebrity – the constant in his life – weighed against his undoubted commitment to the anonymity of shoe-leather journalism.
In an era when "fake news" is thrown around with chilling ease (often by those terrified of the truth), media criticism has become a lost art. A combination of cost-cutting, defensiveness, and enforced collegiality means that analysis of what the news industry is doing, and how the job is done, has become rare. So Belkin's quiet inquisition of Wallace's actions and legacy is more vital than ever. As much as it's easy to point out how blowhards like Bill O'Reilly merely amplified Wallace's aggressive streak, his legacy is also in long-form interviews as unlicensed psychology, like how NPR's Terry Gross too often seems determined to make her interviewees cry on air. Ultimately, it asks the one vital question: Was Wallace worth his cost?