For a documentary with its subject’s name in the title, “Mike Wallace Is Here” is surprisingly slim on biographical details. Sure, we get some brief insight into the TV journalist’s childhood, his multiple marriages, and his failings as a father, but his son Chris Wallace gets less time on screen than people his father merely interviewed, ranging from Bette Davis to Ayatollah Khomeini. Instead, Avi Belkin‘s film spends most of its time on the professional life of Mike Wallace, itself a commentary on both his limited engagement with his family as well as his impact on today’s TV news and political scene.
“Mike Wallace Is Here” makes that connection early — and often. The film begins with Wallace interviewing Bill O’Reilly, who credits the TV veteran with his brash interview style, a comparison that Wallace bristles at. But director Belkin gives an evenhanded look at the “60 Minutes” newsman, charging him with the current world of TV news and its ever-growing overlap with show business as well as recognizing the lingering effects of Wallace’s approach to his interviews. Wallace lacked the traditional education and career path of most journalists, and his resume included game shows and commercials, making him seem less serious about the profession than some of his peers.
When he first got his start in the business with shows like “Night Beat” and “The Mike Wallace Interview,” others in the industry only lobbed softballs at their subjects, often resulting in good PR for a person or a project, but rarely offering much insight. But Wallace was different; he became famous for his aggressive questions, as well as the depth of the answers he often got. That style might have earned him record ratings later in his career, but it also meant that Barbra Streisand called him a “son of a bitch,” and his “60 Minutes” coworker Morley Safer asking, “Why you sometimes such a prick?”
With moments like those, the documentary is expertly curated and edited; there’s no original video or interviews, and no narration to guide us through Wallace’s world and career. Belkin relies entirely on archival footage, a feat likely made both easier and tougher by Wallace’s decades in front of the camera. Other directors might have been moved by the wealth of video to make a longer, more sprawling film about the journalist, but the “Mike Wallace Is Here” filmmaker creates a tight, compelling doc that moves quickly through the years, propelled by a powerful internal rhythm and John Piscitello‘s heart-pounding score. This is a fast, fiercely entertaining documentary that says as much about Wallace and his time as it does about our own.
Donald Trump could have simply hung like a specter over the film, with his ongoing war with the press and honked refrains of “Fake news!” making him merely alluded to, but not actually heard here. However, his decades in the spotlight mean that (of course) he sat with Wallace back in the ’80s, and it’s not a particularly flattering moment for the businessman-cum-politician in the present. Beyond being embarrassing (if he were capable of feeling such an emotion), the appearance here drills home the devastating effect of the merging of entertainment and news into a single mutant beast. Wallace may not be the sole mad scientist behind its creation, but his fingerprints are still on its DNA.
Even “Mike Wallace Is Here” doesn’t fully separate entertainment and news; this is often an insightful film, but it’s full of delights for journalism, history, and political junkies alike. It doesn’t fully answer the challenging problem of where the line between the two needs to be, but at least it’s asking the right question. [B+]