“You’re a dinosaur,” Bill O’Reilly insists to veteran “60 Minutes” journalist Mike Wallace in the opening scene of Avi Belkin’s documentary “Mike Wallace is Here.” Then O’Reilly says something worse: “I’m your son.”
Illegitimate, maybe. Both TV anchors made their bones asking confrontational — even rude — questions. The difference is Wallace wanted to hear the answers. In the clip, Wallace is so irritated by O’Reilly’s analogy, and his politicized grandstanding, that the then-octogenarian snaps, “That’s not an interview, that’s a lecture.”
Still, Wallace, who died in 2012 at the age of 93, was a killer. In a world of softball televised sit-downs, his inquisitions were more like high-wire jousts. Over his seven-decade career, he challenged the Imperial Wizard of the KKK on his claims of being non-violent, prodded mobster Mickey Cohen to count how many people he killed, grilled Vladimir Putin if Russia was really a democracy, and when a Vietnam veteran confessed to a massacre, asked the whopper follow-up, “How do you shoot babies?” Even Eleanor Roosevelt was fair play. Wallace simply looked at the former first lady and said, “I think you will agree that a good many people hated your husband. They even hated you.”
Most of the time, Wallace was on the prosecution side of the conversation. Occasionally, he played defense, and when journalists jabbed him with similar questions about his workaholism and multiple marriages, he’d sputter, “What relevance does that have?” He was a hypocrite, but he answered honestly. And he left behind enough tape from both ends of the microphone that Belkin is able to create his entire documentary with old footage, juiced by retro imagery of broadcast air waves and vintage dials and knobs.
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Belkin’s less interested in the man himself than his media footprint, currently at risk of being eroded by corporate conglomeration and bleats of “fake news!” He dashes through Wallace’s biography — the strict childhood during Great Depression, the acne scars that convinced him he had a face for radio, his suicide attempt, and most of his wives — to focus on how he transformed himself for a showboating charmer to a serious journalist.
Wallace spent his first years in broadcast as a combination announcer, actor, and pitchman. He changed his name from Myron to Mike and sold shortening, lipstick, and cleaning supplies to housewives. In 1956, he launched the TV show “Night Beat” with a self-referential wink. “My role is that of a reporter,” he said, as though asking tough questions was just one more put-on. But he quickly grew into the persona of the unflappable interlocutor, and when the show spun into “The Mike Wallace Interview,” it was one of the starkest, and most surprising programs on air. The camerawork was so vérité as to be unseemly, all tight closeups and shiny pores, which made his guests look so raw and nervous, you could half-expect Wallace had a gun under the table ensuring they told the truth. His own network hyped him as “the Terrible Torquemada of the TV Inquisition.”
“My name is Mike Wallace. The cigarette is Parliament,” he’d begin, and spend the next half-hour chain-smoking alongside everyone from Gloria Swanson and Salvador Dalí to Henry Kissinger and Aldous Huxley. Back then, sponsorship was a given. By the ’90s, the influence of money in television was more subtle and more pernicious, particularly during Wallace’s most notorious brawl when “60 Minutes” pulled his interview with tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand. When Wigand and Wallace’s free speech fight against the network’s lawyers turned into the Oscar-winning film “The Insider,” Wallace grumbled about Christopher Plummer’s portrayal of him as slow-to-act. Still, to people personally acquainted with the cantankerous Wallace, Plummer’s performance felt true enough, even when he bellowed, “I’ve been in this profession for 50 fucking years!”
“The press is the yardstick of a nation’s heath,” declared Wallace. In the decade since his last appearance on “60 Minutes,” the industry has lost a quarter of its employees. If he were alive, he’d have some feisty questions for the current CEOs of Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, and Gannett, and a president who gloats when journalists are fired. Alas, despite the film’s title, Wallace is not here.
As Belkin’s brisk and compelling documentary fades to black, the director seems to hope that the Wallace quotation audiences cling to isn’t one of his fanged questions, but his optimism for the profession to which he dedicated his life: “The hope would be that no matter who owns the network, or who opens the paper, that they’ll have the courage and the sense of obligation to let the truth be told.”