The Best Damn Way to Write History “Mike Wallace Is Here,” directed by Avi Belkin
It takes four minutes and 14 seconds before the title of Avi Belkin’s brilliant documentary about legendary American journalist Mike Wallace finally turns up. That interval is a capsule of what the remaining 127 minutes will reveal: that Wallace’s 60-year-long career was more complicated than you could ever guess by simply watching the game-changing, compelling interviews he did on 60 Minutes, beginning in 1968 and continuing until his retirement 37 years later. By the time Wallace died in 2012 of natural causes at the age of 94, the practice of broadcast news and the role of the interview had changed profoundly. Belkin’s documentary sets out to understand the ways in which Wallace was a catalytic figure in that irrevocable change. When he became a broadcaster, the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite billed itself as “the world news, concisely summarized and clearly expressed.” Some 35 years later Bill O’Reilly from Fox News will claim that he “has worked unbelievably hard to win the game of broadcast journalism.” He calls Wallace a dinosaur and gives him instructions about how to be a winning broadcaster: “You have to engage now; you have to challenge; you have to be so provocative.” It’s like a puppy yipping at an old dog who already knows all the tricks. But O’Reilly attributes his ambition to Wallace: “You were the driving force behind my career. I tell everybody, if you have a problem with me, go to Wallace. He’s responsible.”
Mike Wallace Is Here is an unconventional documentary because it is made entirely from archival footage. Belkin was given access to the CBS archives and could draw on raw material touching on every major event that happened in or affected America over a period spanning five decades. The conceit of the film is that Wallace is being interviewed about his life’s work and his approach to journalism, and in the process we also see him conducting interviews with significant figures in politics, journalism, entertainment and the arts, including Anwar Sadat, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Richard Nixon, Vladimir Putin, Ben Bradlee, Larry King, Oprah Winfrey, Johnny Carson, Shirley MacLaine, Thomas Hart Benton, Salvador Dali and Arthur Miller. Some interviews are startling; Paul Meadlo, who participated in the My Lai massacre, says, “Lieutenant Calley told me to start shooting. I fired four clips into the group of men, women, children and babies. I might have killed 10 or 15 of ’em.” Wallace asks, “The question comes to mind: How do you shoot babies?” and Meadlo’s chilling response is without affect: “I don’t know, it was just one of them things.” The range of the interviews is wide. Some carry a different tone and are delightfully ambiguous; when Barbara Streisand says, “You really are a sonofabitch. I hate you with a venomous passion right now,” Wallace’s response—“That’s a good place to stop”—seems the right one. In his estimation, a wrap is preferable to a rap.
In the course of the interview with Oriana Fallaci, herself a brilliant and controversial interrogator of public figures, there is disagreement over how to describe what she does. She claims to be an historian and goes on to define what she means: “A journalist is an historian who writes history in the same moment history happens.” Then she adds, “and it is the best damn way to write history.” Fallaci’s characterization fits Wallace perfectly, a coincidence that is made most dramatically in his interview with the Ayatollah Khomeini during the Iranian hostage-taking incident in 1979. In a response to one of Wallace’s questions, the Ayatollah says through a translator that Anwar Sadat is a traitor, “and I want the people of Egypt to overthrow him because that’s what you do to a traitor.” The film cuts to President Sadat’s assassination in 1981, and Fallaci’s observation about journalism’s historical immediacy becomes disturbingly and murderously real.
The segment with the Italian journalist is characteristic of Belkin’s way of repurposing all the encounters between Wallace and his interview subjects. When Wallace talks about the people he interviews, he could as easily be talking about himself. He describes Fallaci as “resourceful, ambitious, arrogant; she plays the role of judge, the interviewee is on trial, and few are found innocent.” Throughout the film, friends and foes alike use these same qualities and their effect is a way of describing how Wallace conducted himself as a journalist. Stephen Colbert introduces Wallace as “the master of nailing somebody on camera.” Wallace himself said, “We were asking abrasive questions and were doing things that at the time were revolutionary.”
The interview was the defining form for Wallace—“I suddenly had found my bliss”—and it changed the face of television. Beginning with Night Beat in 1956, continuing with The Mike Wallace Interview a year later and culminating in 60 Minutes, Wallace shaped the interview into a form of confrontation and revelation using “his singular brand of brow-beating charm.” Larry King told Wallace that they each gathered information in their own way; he never asked a hard question and Wallace almost always asked hard questions, but “there’s no perfect interview.” Wallace, not content with the limitation, aspired to a condition of perfection. For the first time in the history of television, a news program rose to number one in the ratings and it was clear the success was due to the interviews. A commentator in the documentary says, “Its patented blend of hero reporters and sweating villains redefined TV news,” and it made Wallace a star.
Mike Wallace Is Here is the personal history of a remarkable individual who changed journalism, and that transformation is one that Belkin finds intriguing. But the film also considers what are the implications of those changes. The documentary has a built-in, subtle politic and, to get that idea across, it uses figures from the past who are still in our present. One of the last interviews Wallace conducted was with Vladimir Putin in 2005. Wallace is having trouble hearing during the sound check while they exchange pleasantries about health. He admits that at 87 he is deaf and can’t see very well. Putin is smiling the whole time and you wonder if he’s taking the interview seriously. Then Wallace starts in and the questioning is not pleasant; he asks about corruption, about the lack of an independent press, and whether Russia is a democracy. The final time we see Putin in the closing credits, h is drinking from a teacup decorated with an imperial crest and he never takes his small eyes off Wallace. It is like being watched by a vindictive reptile.
In the credit sequence it is surely no accident that the figure who follows Putin is young Donald Trump, who earlier in the film had been described as “a major deal maker, a swashbuckler.” Belkin started his film three years ago, before Trump was elected, but the film anticipates what the Trump world will become. We do see him one other time in the body of the film, speaking at a campaign rally in Elkhart, Indiana, where he points his small finger at the fake news media who occupy the back of the room. In the sequence he follows Putin to complain about “people saying hopelessly negative things. They have problems, not me.” The next thing we hear is a technician saying, “We just ran out of film.” Neither the fresh entrepreneur nor the fleshy president is heard from again. This film has paid scrupulous attention to every image and sound, so any detail is an aspect of its careful and nuanced shaping.
Wallace often seems brusque and aggressive while doing interviews and impatient and dismissive while giving them. There are, though, poignant moments. One of the many off-camera interviewers says it is time to “do some hard stuff about the death of Peter.” After his son hadn’t been heard from for almost three weeks, Wallace went to Greece, rode a donkey to the top of the mountain where Peter had been seen and peered over a cliff. “Tell me about how you found your son’s body,” the interviewer asks. We watch Wallace gathering his thoughts for a full 11 seconds. Time seems to stop. Wallace lowers his head, takes a deep breath, tilts his head slightly to one side, looks up and makes an inaudible and involuntary sound. He blinks and you can see a tear beginning to form in the eye on the lit side of his face. It is almost unbearable because you know he is not worrying about the answer he will give; he is reliving the experience of seeing his son’s dead body at the bottom of a mountainous ravine in Greece.
There is a tendency for the film to turn from documentary to docu-biography. And the biography is challenging. Wallace addresses his own vulnerabilities: initially, adolescent acne that made him long for grey days and not sunny ones, so that his pockmarked skin wouldn’t be evident, and that convinced him his future was in radio so he could “hide behind a microphone”; Peter’s accidental death in 1962; the three-year-long, $120 million lawsuit launched against him and CBS by General Westmoreland in 1982 for a documentary that claimed the general manipulated enemy troop strength to suggest progress against the Viet Cong; and, finally, prolonged and chronic depression that led to a suicide attempt. Worst of all was his unshakable sense that he wasn’t a serious journalist because his roots were in acting and pitching various commercial products, including Dutch Cleanser, Parliament Cigarettes, Revlon lipstick and Fluffo shortening. He was even the radio voice of the Green Hornet. His insecurity was determining: “I was going to be paid attention to because I would research thoroughly and ask tough questions.”
Wallace is always ferociously intelligent and often abrasively impatient, but there are occasions, less frequently, when he comes across as genuinely likeable. In the interview with his friend and 60 Minutes co-host Morley Safer, what is evident is their shared respect and trust—it is Safer who elicits a first-time admission from Wallace, after repeated denials to other interviewers, that he actually attempted suicide at the height of his crippling depression. There is equal respect in the segment near the end of the film in his 1987 interview with Arthur Miller. The film has been investigating what working lives accomplish, what does the end of work mean, and what does the end of life mean. These two giant talents are talking mortalities.
Wallace asks his old friend if he ever thinks about an epitaph. The sequence is shown on split screens so we can see how they respond to one another as the conversation unfolds. Miller turns his lived-in, handsome face towards Wallace and says, “I’ve never given it a moment’s thought.” Wallace’s counter is an affectionate prod: “Give it a moment.” We see the journalist and the playwright walking together in the lush, green property around Miller’s home and we hear another off-camera interviewer asking Wallace essentially the same question he has just put to Miller: “What do you think people will remember Mike Wallace as?” His first response is to dismiss it: “a lousy question” and he gives it a “bullshit” answer, which he then reconsiders. “Tough but fair. A guy who perhaps moved the dialogue around that much in certain areas”—and he holds two fingers of his right hand an inch apart. “Used his life sensibly, basically a decent guy. That would be fine.”
We return to the split-screen image of Wallace and Miller, who picks up the lingering question. “Epitaph. Well, the first thought is, ‘He worked awful hard.’ Life without work to me would be incredible, unbelievable, I couldn’t imagine it. Like breathing.” Wallace then asks, “What did you work for?” and Miller says, simply, “Oh, some little moment of truth.” One inch of movement, some little moment of truth. The screen with Miller on it goes white and we’re left with Wallace sitting on the left, nodding his head in thoughtful agreement. Then his screen goes white. Suddenly Mike Wallace isn’t here. ❚