After the newspaper reporting drama “Spotlight” won best picture, and just before Donald Trump was elected president and “fake news” was slapped on everything, “Mike Wallace is Here” documentarian Avi Belkin recognized journalism was at a tipping point.
“I was still living in Tel Aviv — I’m from Israel — and the idea was to address the Genesis story of broadcast journalism. I was kind of obsessing about the question, ‘how did we get here?'” Belkin said.
To find answers, Belkin focused on longtime TV journalist Mike Wallace, whose six-decade career in the field began in the earliest days of broadcast news and ended shortly before his 2012 death. Using raw footage of Wallace both as interviewee and interviewer — with the likes of Ayatollah Khomeini, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin — Belkin stitched together a film using only archive footage to tell both the story of Wallace’s career and the trajectory of journalism into the modern era.
Belkin talked about his approach following a recent International Documentary Association (IDA) screening in Los Angeles as part of IDA’s annual awards-season series that looks back at the year’s best nonfiction films.
“I’m choosing to live in the times of these events. I’m not getting someone to say, ‘Oh, Mike, changed the form,'” Belkin said. “The idea I had was that television was the basis for all our history lessons. The way we experienced the 20th Century was watching TV. And Mike is this iconic historian, right? Because he was basically telling us the way that things went down.”
The majority of the film is untelevised outtakes of interview footage. Many scenes utilize a split-screen format, one side showing Wallace and the other showing his interview partner — capturing the awkward pauses, nodding, shocked expressions, and other reactions to Wallace’s hard-hitting style that TV viewers usually only got a glimpse of.
The result is what Belkin describes as an “interview” with Wallace that seeks to get to the man’s inner emotional core. His interviews help illustrate his subconscious and insecurities.
“There’s not a lot of opportunities for a documentary filmmaker to have someone on both sides of the equation,” Belkin said. “I can see where Mike is talking about himself. I can understand where Mike is flushing out his inner-self.”
The film’s opening scene addresses what Belkin describes as a “changing of the guard” — Wallace’s 2004 interview with former Fox News host and notorious yeller Bill O’Reilly. Though it happened 15 years ago, it speaks to a very current state of events: A defiant O’Reilly calling the respected newsman a “dinosaur” and explaining that modern news viewers need to see passion and outrage in order to feel engaged.
The film quickly shows that Wallace, who became venerated along with the rise in popularity of “60 Minutes,” was almost an O’Reilly-like figure in the 50s and 60s. His aggressive, unrelenting questioning of his subjects was a major shift from the softball questions lobbed by his predecessors and made for great on-screen drama, a sense Wallace could have developed during his time as a pitchman and actor.
Over time, the unconventional, in-depth style of Mike Wallace and “60 Minutes” would earn both troves of Emmys and respect from many, with profiles on world leaders, investigative reports, and deep dives into the most pressing topics of the time.
Below, take a look at video highlights from the full International Documentary Association Q&A with Avi Belkin.