Film

Mike Wallace Is Here

The hero we need

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

At first the title seems too simple, if not a bit stilted, especially for those who had never heard the name: Mike Wallace Is Here.

Yet as the documentary about the hard-hitting TV newsman soon makes clear, those are the four words no crooked politician or conniving businessperson ever wanted to hear.

The film deftly weaves news and interview clips from Wallace’s half-century on TV with the times he himself answered questions as tough as those he asked, fleshing out one of the country’s last formidable journalists.

It opens with Wallace confronting the just-as-brash Bill O’Reilly. As they trade barbs, it’s clear they are reflections of one another. O’Reilly even says so, admitting that it was Wallace who inspired him to go into the news business.

Mike Wallace Is Here works so well because of such encounters. Director Avi Belkin uses Wallace’s own interviews to put the journalist on the hot seat. In one series of clips, we watch him squirm when he’s asked how many times he’s been married. That segues to a smirking Wallace asking Larry King about his five wives.

Such segments separate the documentary from standard biographies. It’s a penetrating look at a complex man who started in TV as an actor and pitchman (it’s tough to see a young Wallace sell something called Golden Fluffo) and became one of the foremost TV reporters of his time.

The movie generally follows Wallace’s timeline, focusing first on him as the tough if annoying interviewer in Night Beat. The show, debuting in 1962, would establish Wallace as the journalist you don’t want to come across in a secret-filled alley, as he unmasked celebrities, politicians and even gangsters.

“You ask tough questions to get behind the facade,” Wallace says in a later interview. “To try to understand what’s really going on behind the scenes.”

Some tough questions are asked of him as well, particularly about how he went into deep depression when he and CBS news were sued for libel by General William Westmoreland. Even then, Wallace is not quite as honest as he would be much later.

Wallace is best known for his decades-long stint on 60 Minutes, and the film shows dozens of clips from his memorable interviews. None, though, are quite as nerve-wracking as when he confronted Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, quoting others when he called the ayatollah a “lunatic.”

It’s also fascinating to see a 38-year-old Donald Trump dismiss Wallace when the reporter asks if politics might be in the real-estate magnate’s future. Wallace died in 2012 at the age of 93, so there’s no telling what he might think of President Trump. 

Mike Wallace Is Here chronicles the evolution of journalism as well, from the time America got its news for a select number of anchorman to today, the airwaves filled with talking heads, all of which have an opinion. What isn’t new is the general disdain of reporters, a theme the film follows from Vietnam and Watergate (though surely it goes back centuries).

Even as the film ends, the vision of Wallace holding his ever-present cigarette lingers, so much so you can almost smell the tobacco. You may also wish Mike Wallace was still here.

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