“MIKE WALLACE IS HERE” — 4 stars — probable PG-13 (profanity, intense footage connected to war coverage and periodic adult subject matter); running time: 94 minutes; Sundance Film Festival
PARK CITY — It’s hard to imagine anyone making a bad documentary about the life of Mike Wallace.
Simply connecting the dots of his 60+ years in journalism would yield a fascinating journey. Yet with “Mike Wallace is Here,” director Avi Belkin has gone beyond the easy route and constructed a complex, insightful and creative portrait of a man widely considered to be the most feared interviewer in his class.
According to Belkin — who was in Park City this week while his film has been featured at the Sundance Film Festival — the plan was to tell the story of modern broadcast journalism by telling the story of one of its most central figures. The concept was, in effect, to give Wallace a taste of his own unflinching medicine.
Belkin throws down the gauntlet immediately with footage of an interview with former Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly, who suggests he is the natural outgrowth of the confrontational foundation Wallace laid years before.
“Wallace is Here” doesn’t confirm or deny O’Reilly’s assertion, but from here it launches decades into the past to examine the rise and effect of Wallace’s storied career. There are no narrators and no talking heads, at least in the traditional sense.
Belkin has assembled the film exclusively from archival footage, and the documentary generally follows a chronological trajectory while at times leaping forward to sample more recent clips to help guide the narrative.
The background content starts with only a brief mention of Wallace's childhood, suggesting a bout with acne initially made him insecure about his looks. It was perhaps for this reason Wallace started his career in radio before eventually making his way into television and working in a variety of capacities — including cigarette pitchman — before winding up in serious journalism.
A program called “The Mike Wallace Interview” marked the first appearance of Wallace’s tough line of questioning, but it wasn’t until after his son’s death in 1962 that he officially committed to serious journalism. From here, “Wallace is Here” stakes out a number of landmark moments — from Wallace’s arrival at CBS to his correspondent coverage of the Nixon campaign in ’68 to his high-risk interview with Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 (which the film strongly suggests led directly to the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat).
Belkin’s documentary also spends considerable time on Wallace’s landmark tenure on CBS’s famed “60 Minutes,” which creator Don Hewitt claims to have based on an idea stolen from LIFE Magazine. An interview with longtime colleague Morley Safer guides much of “Wallace is Here,” even leading Wallace to open up about his experience with serious depression.
The content alone is worth the price of admission, and sharp-eyed viewers will note “greatest hits” clips of interviews with the likes of Salvador Dali, Eleanor Roosevelt and a particularly enlightening bit with former "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson. There’s also the requisite clip with current U.S. President Donald Trump, recorded back in the 1980s, but fortunately Belkin doesn’t allow pro or anti-Trump commentary to take over his film.
But as good as the content is, Belkin elevates it with a spot-on production and creative storytelling that remains dynamic and engaging, often employing a split-screen technique drawn from the time that Wallace filmed his interviews with two different simultaneous camera shots. (Belkin suggested after the screening that this imagery supported the feeling that Wallace’s interviews were Old West-style duels.)2 comments on this story
As you might expect, there is some sobering material that probes into the current state of broadcast news, and it’s interesting to hear voices from the past accuse Wallace of confusing journalism with show business. But regardless of your own sentiments, “Mike Wallace is Here” maintains a thoughtful tone that never feels overbearing or biased; whether you’re interested in a history of the man or the field he pioneered, Belkin’s film should be required viewing.
Rating explained: “Mike Wallace is Here” is not rated, but would likely draw a PG-13 for some fleeting profanity (including a single use of the F-word), as well as some intense footage connected to war coverage and periodic adult subject matter.