Takes a Licking and Keeps on Ticking
2019 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Avi Belkin / Opened in select cities on July 26, 2019; locally on Aug. 16, 2019by:
The title of Avi Belkin’s Mike Wallace Is Here may be a nod to the phrase used to introduce the television journalist on his influential news magazine show 60 Minutes, but it also cleverly points to the late Wallace’s authorial presence within this documentary. Culled together exclusively from a treasure trove of archival footage, it’s ostensibly Wallace spinning his own yarn through his preferred medium – the news television interviews for which he became a household name – as both interviewer and interviewee. With that in mind, Mike Wallace Is Here has a surface resemblance to the trendy archival footage-only mosaics like this year’s hit docs Apollo 11 and They Shall Not Grow Old. However, the wrinkle Belkin adds – shaping the film so that the subject seems to interrogate himself – allows for a uniquely rewarding, sometimes opaque, and often very funny experiential montage.
Wallace is not a co-author in the sense that he’s helped shape the material here; he died in 2012, so this is emphatically not auto-biography. However, his braggadocious technique and intrepid reporting comprises the film’s content, and it also informs the lean shape Mike Wallace Is Here takes. Interviews with a cavalcade of both famous and infamous 20th-century notables – Bette Davis, Arthur Miller, Eldon Edwards, Richard Nixon, to name just a few – flash through the title cards, set to the Chromatics’ “Tick of the Clock,” the propulsive rhythm-section-only track that previously scored the opening robbery in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). From this, it’s clear that Belkin is uninterested in traditional documentary technique, attempting to move the dial of a more staid mode of talking-head docs into a possibly more involving and modern one. It’s also a move analogous to what Wallace and Don Hewitt were up to when they entered the stately CBS newsrooms to eventually modernize that medium.
That hyper-slickness does make for one of the most entertaining biodocs in recent memory, given that this particular milieu could bore the hell out of an uninitiated viewer. (Although it’s worth noting that the newsroom frequently makes for compelling narrative cinema: His Girl Friday , Network , Broadcast News , et al..) Mike Wallace Is Here is at once a biography and an exploration of how the parasitic nature of politics, culture, and the media has increasingly mutated into something more insidious since Wallace first appeared on local radio programs in the early 50s. In this way, the film introduces big ideas while jumping through Wallace’s greatest hits and misses. While they’re not dished out and then dispensed with in a perfunctory manner, many of these ideas may require more mulling than what Belkin allows for within his tight 90-minute feature.
In a prologue of Wallace’s interview with persona non grata Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, the conservative huckster and braggart draws a line from his own political firebrand methods to Wallace’s take-no-prisoners style, the latter having helped shift news from simple reportage to “entertainment,” as some pigeonholed the now-venerated Wallace throughout his career. It is, like many things that come from O’Reilly’s word-hole, a false equivalency, but Wallace’s unlikely reaction suggests at least some culpability on his part.
Belkin weighs O’Reilly’s assertion throughout the film, but the director thankfully leaves the question open-ended while still attempting to mark the points at which such a thing might have occurred. Wallace’s early days in television as an actor, game show host, and cigarette spokesman meant that his entrée into news with his heavy-hitting interview programs, Night-Beat and The Mike Wallace Interview, initially prompted scoffs from establishment journalists. He persevered, landing a gig at "America’s most trusted" news outfit CBS News, but his more traditional cohorts there, including Walter Cronkite, saw him as a rowdy upstart.
The cycle of two steps forward and one step back is a constant for Wallace, and it's here where the biodoc draws parallels between Wallace’s professional trajectory and the sensationalization of television journalism. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini calls for an Egyptian uprising against their president, Anwar Sadat, in an interview with Wallace, seemingly resulting in the assasination of Sadat shortly after. This, along with the increasing proliferation of news magazines and tabloid programs – as well as a lawsuit from General William C. Westmoreland against CBS News on the basis of a Wallace interview – casts a national black cloud over the established media.
Throughout his narrative of causality, Belkin is occasionally prone to obvious comparisons to our current political and media landscape, sometimes with blunt force, as when he features Wallace with a then-late-30s Donald Trump who denounces any intention of running for public office – although the real estate mogul believes he’s the type who could get the job done. The moment is chilling, sure, but it all feels like warning signals that have arrived far too late, touching a raw nerve just to provoke reaction. That inclusion does, however, allows Mike Wallace Is Here to function as a case study in media ethics, both in its content and its very storytelling.
Elsewhere, particularly when dealing with Wallace’s insecurities and personal life, the director deploys a lighter touch and creates a much greater impact. Eisenstein would be proud (or at the very least, intrigued) by Belkin’s trick of cutting between Wallace’s hard-nosed interviews of various subjects and the multitude of times the reporter was the subject himself; he was a celebrity in his own right, after all. He challenges Bette Davis’ assertion that all she ever needed in her life was work, not people, and whether that could be true for any human – and then voices virtually the same sentiment himself in a retirement-era interview with a 60 Minutes producer. He prods Larry King about his personal relationship woes, later shutting down a similar question posed to him as “bullshit.” Most revealing regarding the schism between his private and public self is his seemingly insensitive line of questioning to Leona Helmsley’s about her son’s death, juxtaposed against the suicide of Wallace’s own son and the lifelong trauma it inflicted on the newsman.
While the conceit of using pre-existing interview material exclusively doesn’t allow for a fully formed biography of Wallace – although, admittedly, the film and the man himself suggest that his work was the sole reason for his existence – this complex documentary is likely the closest any filmmaker can get to the contradictory truths surrounding the legendary journalist. If he truly was the swaggering blowhard this film presents, he’d likely raise hell and red flags about the entire enterprise. It would be hard for him to present a defense against it, however, since Belkin has lovingly crafted a paen as complicated and rich as Wallace’s legacy itself.