Mike Wallace was a television newsmagazine journalist who died in 2012, when he was just shy of 94 years old. I am now 43, and I barely recognized his name before seeing Avi Belkin’s cleverly edited but relatively shallow documentary, Mike Wallace Is Here. He was a huge part of the long running success of the pioneering TV show 60 Minutes, and this film identifies the show itself being at “the height of its power” in the early eighties — when I was about five.
I’m not sure this film will find much of an audience that is not made up of people who are themselves on their last legs. I mean, sure, I went to see it, and last time I checked, I was doing okay. But I’m a film obsessive, interested in a movie like Mike Wallace Is Here because of cinematic context more than its subject. It’s a movie that gets me interested in someone I know little about, rather than a subject that gets me to go to a movie.
And I went into this film expecting a lot of hand wringing about the degradation of journalistic integrity in America, propping up an old-school journalist meant to be an example of the “greatness that once was.” Instead, Belkin largely contextualizes Mike Wallace as a man so relentless in interviewing style that he ushered in the era of relentlessly sensationalist television news.
Belkin makes a memorable choice as the opening clip for his documentary, with Mike Wallace, very late in his career, interviewing Bill O’Reilly. After presenting O’Reilly with several clips of O’Reilly on his own show shouting at guests like a lunatic, Wallace challenges O’Reilly’s self-perception as a journalist, and says, “You’re an opinion columnist.” O’Reilly counters that anyone who doesn’t like his style and persona can blame Mike Wallace. It turns out that, in this particular instance at least, O’Reilly makes a compelling argument.
In truth, Mike Wallace in hindsight exists in more of a gray area, a bridge between an era of journalism with strict rules of so-called “objectivity” — and, some would argue, merely the illusion of a lack of bias — and the current era plagued with monetizing acts of editorializing. What Belkin wants this film’s viewers to conclude about Mike Wallace is a little unclear, but I was struck by the many clips of pundits lamenting the public’s eroding trust in the press and the media. It’s tempting just to think, people have been saying that shit for decades.
The truth is out there, you just have to learn how to find it and the skill to identify trustworthy sources. It’s the process that changes with each era, and it could be argued that Mike Wallace was part of one major shift in that process. Judging by Mike Wallace Is Here on its own, Wallace could be counter-productively abrasive (one person interviewing him asks why he’s “such a prick”), but had a single-minded obsession with getting to the truth about people. It would seem he had no interest in FOX News-style misinformation and manipulation of his viewers, and that’s not nothing. He was just . . . kind of an asshole.
And therein lies the blind spot of Mike Wallace Is Here, which is undeniably entertaining to watch, but never reaches very deep into Wallace’s psyche. There is a short bit about his struggle with depression, and the revelation that, after denying it in several interviews with other TV journalists, he finally admitted he once committed suicide. But, this film is comprised entirely of archival interviews, both of Wallace interviewing others and of several people interviewing him, edited together to create a broad picture of the man and particularly his work and how it affected the evolution of news media. With no contemporary interviews with anyone to offer any insights about the man without him there in the room with them, it all ends with the feeling that none of it quite got to who he was personally. That’s what I would be more interested in.
In effect, Mike Wallace Is Here is not so much about a man as it is about journalism — or, at least, it wants to be. It struggles to achieve that goal as a 90-minute succession of creatively edited sound bites. This film is not without insight, and it is often illuminating to see how Mike Wallace worked, how he influenced the television news industry, and what kinds of insecurities he had. Having no insights to offer from any present-day perspectives, however, keeps the man at a remove, giving the whole film a broad sense of detachment from this man we’re supposed to be getting to know. At least he commands attention as a screen presence, thus insuring there is never a dull moment.