This intense, revealing “American Masters” examination of “60 Minutes” exec producer Don Hewitt and the unflinching, uncompromising, wildly successful newsmag he birthed 30 years ago is far more than the typical clip-show tribute. It’s a riveting investigative journey to the heart of the “60 Minutes” organism that bares perhaps a few more warts than Hewitt and his minions might have liked. In other words, it’s a production that would surely pass Hewitt’s meticulous scrutiny on his own air.
Written, produced and directed with quick-cut energy by filmmaker Susan Steinberg, “Don Hewitt: 90 Minutes on 60 Minutes” represents the first time that Hewitt and company have permitted a film crew to venture into the show’s inner sanctum to peer in at how the most widely imitated show in TV history is constructed. It captures an exhaustive process in which the complex Hewitt stands as judge, jury and emperor over all that is “60 Minutes.”
And yet, the Hewitt we meet is a blaze of contradictions: dictatorial and yet democratic, controlling yet delegating, insensitive yet fatherly. What comes across is the staff’s heartfelt passion for their jobs and the almost fanatical devotion they have for the 75-year-old news vet who created “60 Minutes” in 1968, before the term newsmagazine existed. Dozens have copied Hewitt’s concept, but no one has done it better.
The doc begins looking like something of a fluff job, with Hewitt and the staff spouting good-natured, self-serving platitudes about their lives in the trenches. About 20 minutes in, however, something wonderful happens: Everyone seems to forget that the camera is there. Suddenly, producers like Michael Radutzky admit to being harried, overworked, overwhelmed — and oddly content.
Mike Wallace is shown to be pitching a story about American tourists imprisoned in Ecuador with the flustered awkwardness of a raw rookie, at once defiant and deferential when chastised by Hewitt. It’s like seeing God Himself suddenly humbled.
Steinberg and her never-blinking camera was indeed given no limits on what she could seek out, and she was able to delve deeply into the show’s most harrowing, divisive moment: the decision in 1995 to scrap a story about tobacco giant Brown & Williamson featuring an interview with former executive Jeffrey Wiegand. Fearing a multibillion-dollar lawsuit at the time when CBS was being sold to Westinghouse, CBS blinked and demanded that the story be scrapped, sending an irate, embarrassed Wallace on the warpath.
Hewitt clearly still hurts over a decision that he says was out of his hands.
In the program’s most powerful moment, he admits that “maybe” he should have quit over the journalistically chilling incident. “I didn’t handle it very well,” he offers. “I don’t feel good about it.” His face shows that he means it.
Yet one emerges from “90 Minutes on 60 Minutes” with more respect for Hewitt and the “60 Minutes” machine than ever. While Hewitt, for all of his autocratic management style, shows himself to be an old-school curmudgeon without much in the way of New Age sensitivity, he is also exposed as a man who cares about the quality of the story above all else (including hurt feelings). Hewitt says he wouldn’t want anyone to work for him who was afraid to argue with him, and that comes across again and again.
The chief element that emerges from this fascinating, impeccably produced behind-the-scenes look at an American institution is the fact that doing it better than anyone else takes massive work. And Hewitt — charismatic, dynamic and obsessive — knows how to inspire that work ethic better than anyone in TV.
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