Mike Wallace Is Here: That’s the Way It Appears, by David Bax
Avi Belkin’s Mike Wallace Is Here kicks off with footage of Wallace in true form, calmly and confidently dragging Bill O’Reilly’s feet to the fire and telling him, with no equivocation, that what he does is not journalism. O’Reilly fires back, though; he absolutely does consider himself a journalist and, what’s more, he considers Wallace one of his most formative inspirations. Wallace doesn’t betray any difficulty at processing the accusation–he was simply too good at being on TV to do that–but this conflict forms the strongest elements of Belkin’s examination of Wallace’s career. Was Wallace himself a journalist? And to what extent is he to blame for the shitshow that is television news today?
With a bevy of footage to work with–Wallace spent a large portion of his life in front of cameras–Belkin charts his subject’s journey from actor and television pitchman to aggressive, seemingly fearless interrogator of major political and cultural figures. Those less than austere beginnings hounded him his whole life, giving him a chip on his shoulder that expressed itself in ways both commendable and dangerous.
Apart from Wallace’s psyche, Belkin seems most interested in probing the divide, if one exists, between tabloids and journalism on television. Wallace’s penchant for tough questions often resulted in revealing answers. But, regardless of the outcome, they were simply good theater. Journalism is about the truth, not about the processing of uncovering it. Belkin seems to walk right up to the line of questioning whether the medium of TV can even support real journalism.
Where else, for instance, do ostensible reporters become stars in their own right with such regularity? Belkin suggests Wallace excelled at this personality-driven aspect of the business for a couple of reasons. First, his roots as an actor and television pitchman taught him how to play to the camera. Second, the imposter syndrome that gnawed at him because of those roots made him a prick, both onscreen and off. And pricks make good TV.
Those traits also dovetailed with Wallace’s lifelong struggles with depression. Belkin treats this fact with respect and recycles some powerful footage from an already aired interview but, unfortunately, Mike Wallace Is Here is at its least interesting when it focuses too much on its subject as an individual, whether it’s addressing his mental illness or lionizing him for his attempts to stand by Jeffrey Wigand and against CBS, the few minutes of which here understandably fail to match the two and a half hours Michael Mann gave the same events in The Insider.
At its best, though, the film sidelines biography and focuses on recontextualizing Wallace away from the grandiosity of his posthumous reputation. Along the same lines, it’s fascinating to realize that 60 Minutes, which to young me always seemed like the heights of august intellectualism on television, was originally seen as cheap sensationalism. The content of the show didn’t really change; the world around it did. In that sense, Mike Wallace Is Here brings to mind Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s 2015 Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal, another documentary about smart, combative, charismatic individuals who, by making better TV, made TV worse.