Avi Belkin’s split-screen view of the firebrand 60 Minutes reporter offers a flawed but empathetic picture of one of journalism’s last great titans.
In a world full of purposeful misinformation, the rise of the journalist-as-celebrity, and a feverish battle against the press from the highest office in the land, there really isn’t a much better time for a documentary about journalistic integrity. What makes Mike Wallace Is Here so unique is that it is also a record of the turning point of the news media’s shift from stodgy information to a medium fueled by entertainment.
Told solely via archival footage of interviews conducted by and directed towards Mike Wallace, director Avi Belkin tells the mostly chronological history of the 60 Minutes reporter and firebrand. Much of the film is presented in a split-screen style, giving the feel of an interview throughout. Belkin’s choice to present Wallace’s life in this style speaks highly to how well he understood — not only the importance of what someone says but how someone reacts.
While there are many of Wallace’s interviews that hit hard with one-liners (such as Malcolm X stating that he is “probably a dead man” for his opinions, eight months prior to his assassination), the most haunting moments come from the various versions of post-question silence. Belkin makes wonderful use of these various breaks and brings so many parallels to Wallace’s own feelings of his life with the rage, sadness, and fear that permeates his interviews.
It is refreshing as well that Mike Wallace Is Here avoids the pitfall of depicting Wallace as a pure hero from the start. The second that Wallace’s 60 Minutes co-host Morley Safer asks him “Mike, why are you such a prick?” it becomes very easy to relax and know you’re in good hands.
In a lot of ways, it’s pretty clear why people could think that Wallace was a prick. He derides questions asked of him as “stupid,” but will then turn around and ask the exact same thing of someone he interviews. He holds his private life close to his chest while prying secrets out of everyone else. He bristles at his origins of a cigarette commercial pitchman, but clearly believes that there isn’t a single moment of someone’s history that is off-limits.
But what Belkin does so well is to show that it isn’t something that Wallace does out of malice. At least with the people he likes and respects. However, his dedication to getting the truth from others while being so protective of his own comes across more like a charming juxtaposition. The curmudgeonly crank that you can’t help but like, no matter how much he drives you nuts.
The curmudgeonly crank that you can’t help but like, no matter how much he drives you nuts.
The two (most-likely unsung) heroes of this documentary would be editor Billy McMillin (West of Memphis) and archival researcher Jeffrey Kanjanapangka. The entire crux of the film rests on the puzzling together of decades of archival footage, and McMillin does a majestic job at making sure that each unrelated interview fits so perfectly with the next.
The work of these two isn’t more amazing than during Wallace’s interview with John Ehrlichman, an assistant to Richard Nixon implicated in Watergate. While Wallace overwhelms Ehrlichman with crime after crime committed by Nixon’s associates, McMillin places perfectly timed separate interviews of Wallace doing the same thing with different Watergate criminals. There’s no overlap and the whole scene feels so natural that it is very easy to believe that’s just how that particular episode of 60 Minutes actually went.
When seeing a documentary about a journalistic provocateur (especially one that opens with Bill O’Reilly and features Richard Nixon & Donald Trump), you expect to be greeted by a smacked-over-the-head moral of the necessity of truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth journalism. Which isn’t a bad thing. Instead, Belkin and co. have a deeper answer for what should fuel the desire to be a journalist. That it shouldn’t solely be about being right since being right will only get you so far. What you need is the desire, the passion to do what is right.
It’s this passion of Mike Wallace that allowed him to tackle the fury directed towards him and a multitude of legal threats by the powerful. You have to have the guts to keep pushing, even when you know it won’t be the easy way out. Here’s hoping that Mike Wallace Is Here confirms the conviction of journalists like him and inspires others to live up to his standard of integrity.
Mike Wallace is Here speaks the truth into the camera in limited Chicago release Friday, August 2.