Who remembers the great names of journalism past? In a single generation, it’s been said, they are one with Nineveh and Tyre. Is even Mike Wallace on the way to oblivion? Not if the crackerjack documentary “Mike Wallace Is Here” has anything to say about it.
Wallace, who died in 2012 at the great age of 93, was a disruptive legend of broadcast journalism, someone who famously pushed back against the Ayatollah Khomeini and Vladimir Putin and who so upset Barbra Streisand that she called him an SOB on camera.
A veteran of more than 40 years as a correspondent on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Wallace was often considered the most feared interviewer on television, an interrogator whose manner was unrelenting and questions probing, to the point that both Sid Caesar and Jack Benny did skits satirizing their ferocity.
Because Wallace’s career covered so many big stories — from Vietnam to Watergate to the Iran hostage drama — it’s almost inevitable that a documentary on him would hold our attention. But Israeli director Avi Belkin, doing his first English language feature, exceeds expectations and turns this into a compelling film on the nature and practice of TV journalism.
For one thing, Belkin and his team have done their homework and gotten hold of exceptional footage, including unlimited access to thousands of hours of CBS News’ own archives, a first for an outside filmmaker.
Working with veteran documentary editor Billy McMillin (“Iraq in Fragments,” “West of Memphis”), Belkin made the wise choice of constructing the film entirely in the words of Wallace and those who talk to him, eschewing present day narration and allowing the man and his subjects to speak for themselves.
More than that, the film goes back and forth between the people Wallace interviewed and the times he took his own medicine and allowed his broadcast colleagues, people like Barbara Walters, Lesley Stahl and, most memorably, a fierce Morley Safer, to turn the tables on him.
What results is a portrait of Wallace in effect in dialogue with himself, a presentation that puts viewers on edge a bit the way the man himself interacted with the world.
“Mike Wallace Is Here” opens with one of its more provocative colloquies, an interchange between the subject and controversial host Bill O’Reilly. When Wallace gives O’Reilly a hard time for his hectoring style, the then-Fox anchor shot back that Wallace was his inspiration, “the driving force of my career. If you don’t like me, you go to Wallace.”
The question of what made Wallace Wallace goes back to his high school days, when a crippling case of acne made the future newsman feel “I had a face for radio.”
Wallace’s announcing days eventually lead to all manner of TV work, including a bit of dramatic acting and being a commercial pitchman for unlikely but real products like Golden Fluffo shortening.
Wallace found himself, and changed the face of news broadcasting, with his 1956 interview program, “Night Beat,” where he honed his no-holds-barred style of questioning. “If it was in his head,” someone says, “it came out of his mouth.”
Another turning point in Wallace’s life was the 1962 accidental death of his 19-year-old son Peter while on vacation in Greece, a tragedy that galvanized Wallace to concentrate his energy on serious news.
That led to employment by the most serious of news organizations, CBS, which did not cotton to his scrappy style until he bonded with producer Don Hewitt (“two roughneck kids,” Wallace says) and helped “60 Minutes” take off.
At their best, Wallace’s stories and interviews were great theater, driven by his powerful, insinuating voice and the way he was unmistakably present and accounted for in everything he did.
“Mike Wallace Is Here” doesn’t shy away from dealing with the low points in the newsman’s long career, like the $120-million libel suit that retired Army Gen. William Westmoreland brought, accusing Wallace of “executing me on the guillotine of public opinion.” (The suit settled before it went to trial).
On a more personal note, the documentary also deals with Wallace’s battles with depression, culminating in a suicide attempt that he admitted to Safer after years of public denial.
One of “Mike Wallace Is Here’s” last sequences has him asking Arthur Miller what he was working for. The playwright’s response — “one little moment of truth” — could stand for Wallace’s quest as well.
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: Starts July 26, The Landmark, West Los Angeles