Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Magnolia releases the film on Friday, July 26.
Mike Wallace, perhaps the most feared and influential TV journalist (or “personality”) of the 20th century, lived his entire life in some kind of shame. It started with the acne that he had as a child, and assumed a new form when he entered the brave new world of television as an adult in 1949. Back then, when the medium was still just a public experiment, Wallace seemed happy enough to host game shows and star in the awkwardly sincere commercials that once dominated the airwaves; he even did a little bit of acting (under a pseudonym) on a police drama that invited viewers to call in and guess the identity of the killer. The truth, however, was that Wallace needed to be taken seriously — he needed the validation that he never felt he deserved — and that longing followed him for all of his days as only self-doubt can.
It started as a whisper in his ear, and grew into a roar as he became more respected. By the time his disquiet had bloomed into clinical depression, Wallace was already a household name. His suicide attempt came several decades into his gig as the lead reporter on CBS’ prestigious “60 Minutes,” but, as the late newsman is heard admitting towards the end of Israeli filmmaker Avi Belkin’s propulsive and brilliantly assembled new documentary: “When you’re obsessed with what a fourth-rate individual you are, you contemplate anything to get out of it.”
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If he could never find an escape from that mental trap, perhaps that’s explained by an irony that Belkin carefully lays bare: Wallace left show business on a mission to become a serious TV journalist, and in achieving his goal he transformed the entire TV journalism medium into show business. The movie is called “Mike Wallace Is Here,” and that’s because he’s never left.
Case in point: Belkin’s documentary — which is entirely assembled from archival television footage, and therefore told through the medium that Wallace helped to define — begins with a recent-ish conversation between Wallace and Bill O’Reilly. One man is dead, and the other man might as well be, but their conversation still resonates in today’s media landscape. O’Reilly complains that the networks have gotten too stodgy and traditional; he calls Wallace a dinosaur. Wallace responds by accusing O’Reilly of being an op-ed columnist masquerading as a journalist (it’s hardly the last time in this film that he attacks an interview subject through the prism of his own vulnerabilities). Then, to cap things off, the disgraced Fox News pundit says that Wallace is the driving force behind his career; that Wallace is responsible for all the Bill O’Reillys of the world.
It’s a sharp opening salvo for a film that questions whether or not Mike Wallace was a journalist, or if he was just a skilled dramatist who wasn’t afraid of weaponizing his own insecurities against some of the most iconic figures of the last 100 years (Belkin includes raw footage of Wallace’s aggressive interviews with everyone from Malcolm X and the Ayatollah Khomeini to Barbra Streisand and Johnny Carson, and a 39-year-old Donald Trump even pops up at one point). Wallace, who’s all but credited for inventing the hard-hitting video interview, is also repeatedly exposed as a hypocrite.
We see, for example, a clip of Wallace snipping at an interviewer who asks him how many times he’s been married (four), only for that to be followed by footage of Wallace asking Larry King the same question, and with the same connotation. It isn’t long before the film begins to feel less like a profile than it does an interrogation, as Belkin subjects Wallace to all of his favorite strategies. It’s every bit as curious, provocative, and mercilessly entertaining as Wallace’s own work.
Belkin, however, never quite allows us to question his respect for Wallace; busting out Bill O’Reilly as a foil doesn’t really leave any room for interpretation. However murky the movie gets about its heroes and villains, it’s always clear enough that Belkin is nostalgic for television personalities like Wallace, who cared about the quality of his work even when it came at the detriment of his marriages; who wasn’t afraid to press powerful people for answers to urgent questions, to the point that he occasionally even threatened to impact whatever story he was meant to report.
“Mike Wallace Is Here” doesn’t spend much time doting on its namesake’s formative years, but the film sympathizes with him a great deal; it sympathizes with how the death of his son spurred him towards greatness, and how his private vulnerabilities allowed him to expose a number of public truths. Kirk Douglas tells Wallace that “Most of the things I did wrong came out of my insecurities,” and Wallace — who was never going to conquer his insecurities — at least seemed determined to bend them into most of the things he did right. For better or worse, the world is shaped by people working out their personal issues.
Set to an unexpected electro score and often bisected into a split-screen of two different interviews that makes it seem as though Wallace is watching himself, Belkin’s film susses out a man whose life was defined by his work; as Bette Davis puts it, the least disappointing relationship some people have is with their work. If “Mike Wallace Is Here” grows frustrating as it goes along, that’s because it starts to confuse ambiguity with truth. Perhaps Belkin was too afraid to reveal his cards and make any sort of declarative statements about Wallace, or maybe it’s just that Wallace seldom allowed himself to be vulnerable on-screen (only in conversation with longtime colleague Morley Safer does he really drop his guard).
Whatever the case, this formally dazzling film is sometimes unable to compensate for its blind spots. Belkin might know how Wallace felt about the impact of his reporting, or the hellscape of 24-hour red-faced punditry that it hath wrought, but he doesn’t have the footage to articulate for it us. This is an important and compulsively watchable portrait made by someone who understands the brute power of broadcast media and the people who make it for all the world to see, but it can only afford Mike Wallace with a little moment of truth, and the satisfaction of playing his part in the greater continuum of things. Maybe that was enough for him, but it’s a shame we can’t say that for sure.
“Mike Wallace Is Here” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.