Veteran 60 Minutes journalist Mike Wallace described interviews as love affairs. You’re learning about another person but also learning about yourself by exploring mutual boundaries and levels of intimacy. Those affairs were often quite rocky for Wallace, as his reputation for being unrelenting and intense caused him to be feared by actors and political figures alike. Avi Belkin‘s Mike Wallace is Here uses the extensive archive of CBS footage to animate Wallace, to examine his practices and persona, and to even put him in dialogue with himself.
The documentary evokes a noir sensibility, particularly with a droning thriller score. Wallace seems like a hard-boiled detective, smoking, shining a light in his subjects’ eyes, and going in for the kill when he thinks he has them. It’s an entertaining method for sure but also highly researched and planned. The accumulation of footage paints a complex portrait of a man’s contradictory motives and hard-won reputation. Sometimes the screen splits so we can see multiple representations at once to compare and/or synthesize them. It’s a fantastically edited film, electrifying and pleasurable and dark. More than that, it’s another example of how archival footage can be masterfully utilized.
Wallace was part of the nascent television generation. He performed many roles via the medium: he was an actor, a pitch-man, and a host before he was a journalist. Perhaps that’s why he was eventually so comfortable in a television magazine context, that cultivated showbiz/news hybrid sensibility. But that performative background also meant he had something to prove when faced with other journalists. CBS, after all, was the home of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. Wallace felt like an upstart, so his intensity grew.
In 1956, his show called Night Beat established an interview pattern. He upended the typical soft and cordial public-relations-style. He was willing to confront big issues or hidden feelings. He was nosy, confident, and reasoned, often using his subjects’ own words to get at their soft underbelly. After that show, there was The Mike Wallace Interview Show on ABC. Lawsuits became a regular concern.
But Wallace did get along with Richard Nixon and his camp, even receiving a job offer in 1968. He didn’t take it, choosing instead to embark upon 60 Minutes with producer Don Hewitt. That Nixon connection was fortuitous, however, because when Watergate hit, those Nixon folks would actually speak to Wallace. He packed the fledgling show with interviews. Those conversations not only bolstered the legitimacy of the program, but they also took part in a greater conversation about the role of the press in breaking political corruption. It was a crucial time for the nation’s news media.
60 Minutes became a top 10 television program, thanks to investigative teams, lightning rod issues, and undercover surprises. It spawned other magazine programs. There were glory days of hero reporters and sweaty villains. Of course, there was also the occasional celebrity interview to add spice. Barbra Streisand calling Wallace a son of a bitch is pretty awesome to watch. He doesn’t seem to mind. He was so competitive and hungry throughout his career, it didn’t particularly matter to him if he was liked, only respected. We’ll unpack how fear and respect are toxically entwined another time.
The doc maneuvers to explore Wallace’s own vulnerabilities: his family life, his mental health, and the toll some of the lawsuits took on him. For this, they use footage of interviews he was subject to. He clearly thought about the cost of aggressive journalism and deemed it worthwhile. The work he did on Civil Rights, Vietnam, the tobacco industry, and Iranian politics bear that out. His style is said to influence figures like Bill O’Reilly, but there’s a more complex convergence of issues at work there, I don’t buy it completely. The film seems to have an ambivalent view toward that formula too. For a more compelling argument about the evolution of American punditry, see another excellent doc, Best of Enemies.
That’s not to say Wallace was a flawless journalist with an impeccable moral compass. Part of the charge of this doc is his temperamental and tricky humanity. His love affairs were tempestuous and his ego was at times insurmountable. But his journey was exciting and funny and meaningful, more so because he was ruthless enough to ask what needed to be asked.