‘Mike Wallace Is Here’
Playing in the U.S. Documentary competition of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Running time: 94 minutes. Next screenings: Friday, Feb. 1, 8:30 a.m., The MARC Theatre, Park City; Saturday, Feb. 2, 12:15 p.m., Grand Theatre, Park City.
If there is a hell, for the investigative journalist Mike Wallace it must be having Fox News’s former bloviator Bill O’Reilly suggesting that he is his generation’s Mike Wallace — which is what happens in the first clip of the documentary “Mike Wallace Is Here,” which puts the late “60 Minutes” man under the microscope.
It was a wild career, one that started in radio and television as a jack of all trades: News reader, actor, game-show host and pitchman, hawking Old Dutch cleanser and Parliament cigarettes, among other things. He seemed to find his calling in 1957 with “The Mike Wallace Interview,” which was known for hard-hitting questions and a police-interrogation visual style — and a guest list that ranged from gangster Mickey Cohen to painter Salvador Dali.
The show was popular but risky, and ABC pulled the plug after the threat of a libel lawsuit. But it taught Wallace, and the industry, that news could be entertainment, if packaged the right way.
The right package turned out to be “60 Minutes,” launched by producer Don Hewitt in 1968. Wallace was one of the charter reporters on the show, the first “newsmagazine” on TV. The ratings were low at first, but Wallace hung in there and the show caught hold. Maybe it was the interviews of the major figures in the Watergate scandal, or the hidden-camera investigative stings that netted corrupt municipal officials or stores selling child porn, or the somewhat abrasive celebrity interviews with the likes of Barbra Streisand and Johnny Carson.
Director Avi Belkin covers a lot of Wallace’s life and career, including his work-before-family attitude, the 1982 libel suit filed by retired Gen. William Westmoreland, the corporate interference that delayed the story of tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Weigand (the one chronicled in “The Insider”), and his running battle against depression.
Here’s where it gets interesting: Belkin introduces those topics by finding an archived interview (and CBS opened its vaults to the filmmakers) where one of Wallace’s interview subjects raises the issue. Then Belkin deploys a quote from the archived interviews with Wallace, and the result is like a Mike Wallace interview in reverse.
Belkin argues that Mike Wallace created the template that decades of lesser talents employed, turning news into a circus and a spectacle. It’s true they copied Wallace’s in-your-face attitude, but they didn’t come close to matching his integrity.