For some four decades Mike Wallace was as famous as a television journalist could get without being a network anchorman. Controversy and longevity are a potent combination. Only two years younger than Walter Cronkite, Wallace did his last CBS interview in 2008 — with Roger Clemens, of all people. That was almost 27 years after Cronkite retired.
How the media mighty have fallen: Today Wallace (1918-2012) is probably best known as Chris Wallace’s dad. Well, maybe not best known around here. He was Brookline High, class of ’35, and famously summered on Martha’s Vineyard.
Much of Wallace’s fame derived from his 40 years as a “60 Minutes” correspondent. The classic network-correspondent tone has always been from on high. Wallace’s was from on stage. That slightly theatrical clipped diction perfectly complemented the narrow, disbelieving eyes and that matinee-idol mane. Wallace was brash and abrasive, but with a bespoke style. “They say I’m difficult!” we hear Barbra Streisand say to him in Avi Belkin’s documentary “Mike Wallace Is Here.”
Wallace derived even more fame from his slam-bang, gotcha style. There’s an amazing, yet representative moment in the film from a 1973 interview with Nixon White House aide John Ehrlichman. A visibly sweating Ehrlichman listens as Wallace pours it on. It’s interrogation as peroration. Finally, Ehrlichman manages to respond. “Is there a question in there somewhere?” It’s two parts capitulation to one part protest.
The heavyweight champion Joe Louis famously said of an opponent, “He can run, but he can’t hide.” It could have been Wallace’s motto. The lamest visual cliche in TV news is the correspondent reaction shot. Wallace singlehandedly justified its existence. Oh, that look of withering disdain, those narrow eyes narrowed that much more, as some malefactor offered some halting answer to one of Wallace’s handing-up-an-indictment questions.
Belkin’s smart, dynamic documentary shares its subject’s slam-bang style. That’s good. Watching it is exhilarating. It also shares Wallace’s aversion to nuance. That’s less good. Belkin has a weakness for split screens and rapid-fire editing. In fairness, that’s one way to cram in more material, and Belkin has lots (and lots) of material to cram in.
Among those we see Wallace interviewing are, in no particular order, Eleanor Roosevelt, Vladmir Putin, Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Nixon, Malcolm X, Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump, Anwar Sadat, Bette Davis, Johnny Carson, Arthur Miller — you get the idea. The most memorable interview may be the one in 1979 with Ayatollah Khomeini, at the beginning of the Iranian hostage crisis. It was by no means inconceivable that Wallace wouldn’t be let out of Iran. Yet sitting cross-legged on the floor, he goes after Khomeini with a tenacity, veiled in deference (“Forgive me, imam”), that’s a thing of journalistic beauty.
Belkin does something very shrewd, which he can do only because Wallace conducted so many interviews over so many years. He uses the interview subjects’ responses — on fame, work, ambition — as an implicit, running commentary on Wallace. The researchers, who’ve done an excellent job, definitely had their work cut out for them. At least they didn’t have to worry about being bored. One specific complaint about the use of the interviews: Belkin doesn’t ID most of the subjects until the end of the film. This is annoying, when not outright confusing. “Death of a Salesman” may or may not be the great American play of the 20th century, but few filmgoers are likely to recognize Miller.
Wallace was phenomenally driven. He started out as an actor, game-show host, and pitchman. It’s fitting to see him hawking cigarettes, since the amount of smoking onscreen is a real time-machine experience. He got his own late-night interview show in New York in the late ’50s and eventually made the shift to CBS.
That drive came at a considerable cost. Wallace was married four times. Late in life, he suffered from clinical depression and attempted suicide. In various clips, we see him denying any such attempt, until finally he admits it. Most shocking of all, he was the one who discovered the body when his older son died in a hiking accident. Trying to forget that scene made it that much easier to focus on professional success at the expense of his emotional life.
The documentary begins with Wallace interviewing Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly (speaking of how the media mighty have fallen). “You were the driving force behind my career,” O’Reilly tells him, knowing that’s the last thing Wallace would want to hear. Belkin’s giving the interview such prominence sets up the documentary. A man who started out in show biz and became a serious journalist survived into an age where serious journalism has so thoroughly embraced show biz.
Does Wallace share in the responsibility? The documentary’s title would indicate he does. Yet Wallace was too singular to be an influence: more one-off than model. Relentlessness of such magnitude defies imitation. Christopher Plummer played him in a 1999 film, “The Insider.” Watching Belkin’s documentary, one realizes how much better Wallace was at playing Mike Wallace than any actor could be.
★ ★ ★
MIKE WALLACE IS HERE
Directed by Avi Belkin. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner. 91 minutes. PG-13 (thematic material, some violent images, language, and so much smoking each ticket should come with a nicotine patch).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.