Backed by reels of never-before-seen footage, Israeli documentarian Avi Belkin profiles the late “60 Minutes” icon, chronicling his evolution from advertising pitchman to perhaps the world’s most feared journalist.
The late Morley Safer, never one to beat around the bush, goes straight for the jugular in asking his veteran “60 Minutes” cohort, “Why are you such a p----?” It’s the question no doubt shared by hundreds of people who’ve been trapped on the wrong side of the microphone with master muckraker Mike Wallace. Indelibly, documentarian Avi Belkin provides a convincing answer with his incisive “Mike Wallace Is Here.”
The title is a reference to the words his terrified interviewees hoped to never hear. He liked to make his “victims” sweat, as we see in dozens of archival clips. And we loved to watch him do it. It was great television. More so, it was fun. But what are the long-term consequences of what he and “60 Minutes” wrought by turning news into entertainment? Well, supercharge it with the expertise of former “Mike Douglas Show” producer Roger Ailes and you end up with Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. They copied Wallace’s style without sticking to what their mentor valued most - the truth.
Belkin compellingly draws a through line from Mike Wallace to Fox News, but not without handing out hosannas to the TV icon. This leads to a tricky balancing act of both praising and damning his subject. But you know what? He pulls it off beautifully in a finely calibrated doc that rides an old journalistic warhorse into a modern-day expose on the sorry state of television news in the age of Trump.
What better way to start than with Wallace interviewing O’Reilly? Without a hint of self-awareness, Wallace asks the former Fox star why he’s so combative with his guests. To which O’Reilly, Irish twinkle in his eye, says he’s simply emulating Wallace, adding that the “60 Minutes” man was both his model and his inspiration. “If you don’t like me, go to Wallace,” he tells him. Naturally, Wallace is visibly appalled. But should he be?
Thus begins the long walk down memory lane - or Harvard Avenue - as Belkin retraces Wallace’s life from acne-pocked Brookline teenager to TV pitchman, game-show host and - for a brief period - dramatic actor. Pretty good for a guy who said he was born with “a face for radio.” Then, in 1956, he found his niche with the no-holds-barred New York-based interview show, “Night Beat,” where he made a myriad of politicians and entertainers squirm in their seats week after week. Eventually, it was picked up by ABC, which quickly grew queasy over what it had invested in the off-putting Wallace. He was canceled mere weeks into the gig.
So it was back to whoring himself in cigarette commercials and cheesy TV shows. Then, in 1962, while working for Westinghouse Broadcasting, word came of the disappearance of his 19-year-old son, Peter, who mysteriously fell from a cliff while visiting Greece. The look on Wallace’s face, hauntingly captured by invasive camera crews recording his every expression beside his son’s freshly dug grave, informs you immediately that it was here that he reach an epiphany.
When he returned to the States, he wormed his way into the era’s preeminent news operation, CBS. Suddenly he was rubbing elbows with Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevaried and Edward R. Murrow; and he was mostly rubbing them the wrong way. They asked, who does this TV pitchman think he is in so freely inserting himself alongside such journalistic “greats”? That repellence earned him a spot on the fluff beat, like serving as the man-on-the-street during Manhattan’s infamous 1965 electrical blackout.
Then along came another equally disrespected coworker in producer Don Hewitt. As outcasts, they bonded. And just a few years hence, they devised the game-changing “60 Minutes,” a show we’re told the network had little use for - or at least not until Watergate. It was then that Wallace cashed in on White House connections, landing interviews with G. Gordon Liddy, John Ehrlichman, H.R, Haldeman and Ben Bradlee. Before you could say impeachment, the show was a water-cooler hit.
It’s at this juncture where Belkin’s film hypothesizes TV news lost its verve, as almost overnight the medium grew into a cash cow for the networks. No longer independent, non-profit operations, the news was folded into the entertainment division. It was a sea change in which the consequences were brilliantly foretold in Paddy Chayefsky’s prescient screenplay for 1976’s “Network.”
Overnight, Wallace emerged a star, and his weekly take down of crooks, politicians and the occasional movie actor - you’ll love his surly interviews with Barbra Streisand and Kirk Douglas - captured the zeitgeist. But the bigger his stature, the more expansive his chronic depression, which he confesses to Safer led to a suicide attempt. It’s here where Belkin’s film takes a significantly darker turn.
It’s also around the time fellow Bostonian Barbara Walters accuses him of being a teleprompter-reading puppet, propped up by producers who did all the heavy lifting - just like Hollywood portrayed it in 1999’s Oscar-nominated “The Insider,” a film showing “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) doing a majority of the leg work on a seminal report spelling doom for Big Tobacco.
Add that to a $20 million lawsuit brought by Gen. William Westmoreland, accusing Wallace of slander in misrepresenting the commander’s war record, and you have very bad days at Black Rock. CBS eventually won the case, but Belkin contends it created a long-lasting chilling effect. Instead of taking on the big fish, news organizations settled for exposing the far less powerful crooks down the street. But for every one of Wallace’s setbacks, Belkin answers with a clip of the newsman performing fearlessly in getting tough with the likes of tyrants Vladimir Putin and Ayatollah Khomeini. And then there’s a young Donald Trump, who tells Wallace, “When I hear people saying purposely negative things, they have a problem. Not me; they have problems.”
The hypocrisy is rich; even richer when it’s on Wallace’s part, like him growing perturbed by a reporter asking him about his many failed marriages, only to see him seconds later grilling Larry King over his many wives. Accordingly, Belkin employs a multitude of split screens, perfect for revealing a bi-polar man who was his own Yin and Yang. You love him one minute; loathe him the next. But the one constant is a powerful, charismatic guy who forever changed the way we watch the news; and how he unwittingly lent a hand in diminishing something near and dear to every journalist: Your trust.
Al Alexander may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Mike Wallace Is Here”
A documentary by Avi Belkin featuring Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Leslie Stahl, Kirk Douglas, Larry King and Barbra Streisand.
(R for thematic material, some violent images, language and smoking.)