In the opening salvo of the documentary “Mike Wallace Is Here,” the iconic TV reporter faces down Fox News blusterer Bill O’Reilly, disputing his journalistic stature. But O’Reilly has a killer comeback.
“You’re the driving force behind my career,” he states, throwing Wallace off his feet, imperceptibly. It’s a legitimate notion. Do the hyperpartisan shouting matches of Fox News bear the DNA of the legendarily combative newsman?
Director Avi Belkin argues they do — but also that no one does Mike Wallace like Wallace did.
Belkin’s uproariously entertaining and fast-paced film seems to mimic the fiery, determined energy of its protagonist. For those who knew Wallace as an elder statesman on “60 Minutes,” the film takes its time introducing us to the ambitious yet insecure young man who made his way from radio to TV. In the early, experimental days of the medium, he essentially invented the TV news interview as we know it today: hard-hitting and often piercing personal questions, no publicity fluff.
Using archival footage (Wallace died in 2012), Belkin stitches together an interview with Wallace himself. He balances the personal and the public of the newsman’s life, underpinning the shifts in Wallace’s career with personal motivations. After the tragic death of his son Peter in 1962, he threw himself even more into serious journalism, and depression later in his career also affected his work.
Wallace’s inner turmoil drove his desire to prove himself, to innovate. But it’s also clear that a strong moral compass consistently kept him on track. While pioneering the “gotcha” interview that later marked trashy news magazine reporting, he did so with a strong grasp of right and wrong, knowing how to punch up, not down (a clip from an interview with Nixon aide John Ehrlichman sweating bullets is hilarious).
Belkin includes clips of some of Wallace’s interviews, including ones with Salvador Dali, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Nixon and Malcolm X.
One is left with the impression of Wallace as a defining and singular voice who brought things to his dogged questioning that so many copycats are missing these days — elegance, manners and a sense of staunch morality.
Mike Wallace Is Here
★★★★ out of 4 stars
Rated: PG-13 for thematic material, violent images, profanity and smoking.