Mike Wallace documentary is a stark reminder of the sorry state of public dialogue in our time

By Bliss Bowen

The late “60 Minutes” anchor Mike Wallace broke from the more staid traditions of the Murrow era and spiced up television news as a commanding presence who never pulled his punches during an interview (CBS archive photos courtesy of “Mike Wallace is Here”)

Unlike many documentaries, director Avi Belkin’s “Mike Wallace is Here” features no talking heads analyzing the hard-charging, complex “60 Minutes” anchor who built his career asking tough, often controversial questions. Instead, the 90-minute film’s narrative arc is crafted entirely from CBS archive footage, much of it previously unseen  — an effective way of making the past feel more present — and shows Wallace’s unorthodox trajectory from commercial pitchman to investigative journalist, starting with 1955’s “Night Beat.”

Belkin says he and editor Billy McMillin sifted through “over 1,400 hours” of raw interview footage and other material drawn from Wallace’s five-decade career. The film shows Wallace making Watergate conspirator John Ehrlichman visibly sweat on camera; sitting cross-legged in 1979 with Ayatollah Khomeini while posing a question he’d been ordered to avoid; admonishing Bette Davis, “I’ll ask the questions”; and going mano-a-mano with a twitchy-mouthed Vladimir Putin. More personally revealing are blunt exchanges with fellow “60 Minutes” anchor Morley Safer, who looks like he understands Wallace better than Wallace understands himself.

The film’s framed with clips from a provocative interview with former Fox personality Bill O’Reilly. After running scenes of O’Reilly hectoring guests on his show, Wallace tells him he’s “an op-ed columnist,” not a journalist. Unfazed, O’Reilly replies, “You’re the driving force behind my career,” and calls Wallace a “dinosaur.” When O’Reilly is seen again at film’s end, the contrast between O’Reilly’s record and priorities and the substance of Wallace’s work requires no clarifying commentary.

Wallace died at age 93 in 2012. Belkin says if he could speak with Wallace now, what he’d be most interested in hearing from the newsman is “his take on the state of journalism today.”

The Argonaut: Was Wallace a personal inspiration for you?

Avi Belkin: When I started the film, no. But today, absolutely. … Watching the raw footage, it’s just amazing to see how good Mike was at his craft. He not only comes very well researched and prepared for interviews, but he has this shark-like quality [laughs] where he’s always sensing for blood, for a weak spot of his interviewee — not to embarrass, but to get to the core of what the person stands for. That’s what an interview does: tries to get to a moment of truth, and for that to reflect to others watching something about themselves and society. Mike had this real obsession about getting to the core of a subject.

But also, the thing that made Mike so successful is because he was so entertaining. He was a movie star. He was so engaging. He was so well versed in those little things that make a thing dramatic. He was an actor, he did commercials; he was very well versed in the ways of camera. The journalism generation before him — the Murrow boys, Edward R. Murrow himself, Walter Cronkite — they were all very radio oriented. No showmanship. Mike was perfectly suited for television, because he understood that with tele-
vision you have to engage an audience to get their attention. He compelled people to watch him, and he made journalism and news look dramatic.

My grandfather disliked Wallace’s drama and preferred Cronkite; now younger generations look up to Wallace and decry commentators like O’Reilly or Sean Hannity. It’s a new generation gap.

I agree. But one of the most beautiful scenes, for me, is the scene with O’Reilly. Mike calls him out: “That’s not an interview, that’s a lecture.” Mike was all about the questions. He wanted those tough questions to get the answers — that was his point. Today the answers are getting lost. It’s much more about opinions; people want to be reassured they are right rather than be questioned about their beliefs.

If we are doing it in bold strokes, you have the first categoric era with Cronkite and Murrow, where journalism was objective, supposedly, and it was almost like the voice of the establishment giving you the news. There were very few outlets, and everybody knew and trusted those guys. Then there’s the second generation, where Mike Wallace is obviously the biggest star and basically took a torch from those guys and made it much more engaging, but still held on to those core beliefs of journalism being about educating and informing people, and having the right motives. They were trying to compete in a medium, television, that needed added entertainment. And then you have the copycats of that era, the O’Reillys of the world, and obviously we see much worse than O’Reilly today. They have taken that element and made it into an extreme, where it is not about answers and information but opinion …

People talk about Fox News, but I watch John Oliver and Bill Maher — they’re also very opinionated and not giving me the full spectrum of the picture.

To be fair, Oliver and Maher are comedians mining news for material. They’re not journalists.

That’s a very good point, but at the end of the day neither is O’Reilly. He calls himself a journalist, but this is the shift we see today, into opinionated journalism. It’s an interesting element that satiric comedians are now basically doing news shows. Stephen Colbert is doing hardcore interviews, and he’s one of the best interviewers alive, in my opinion. The fact that he’s coming from a comedian background doesn’t inform me that he’s not a journalist because he’s doing journalist stuff. Today it’s a more flexible situation with who’s considered a journalist and who’s not. Mike suffered from a little stigma as well. When he came to CBS in ’63, the old Murrow boys and Cronkite looked down on him.

What surprised you most while sifting through the CBS archives?

First of all, his depression. You have this image of this John Wayne kind of tough guy, unflinching, and then you find out he had clinical depression for decades and that he tried to commit suicide.

Many broadcast journalists emulate Wallace’s showmanship; who do you see embodying his legacy of tough questioning?

I don’t see any Mike Wallaces around right now. It’s not to say there aren’t good journalists, but Mike Wallace was an oddity. He was a movie star. He had the persona, the voice, the showmanship. He was an actor with integrity and with unparalleled skill to do a good interview.

What conversation do you hope the film will stimulate?

I’m attracted to genesis stories. A lot of us walk this earth without understanding how things came to be in many ways, in many areas [including] journalism. … In the 1970s and ’80s, when Mike was at the height of his power, “60 Minutes” was the No. 1 show in America. People wanted it. People demanded news. People demanded tough questions.

Today we’re in a situation where a lot of people are demanding to be reassured about their beliefs rather than to be asked tough questions or see a tough interview. I think politicians and the people who own different strong companies around the world today are feeling they can get away without answering those tough questions because people are not holding them accountable.

It’s a two-way street: people have to recognize that journalism cannot exist without an audience.

“Mike Wallace is Here” opens Friday (July 26) at the Landmark, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A. Find screening details at mikewallaceishere.com