In TV terms, the biographical film “Mike Wallace Is Here” is effectively a feature-length recap. Using only archival footage, the director Avi Belkin distills more than five decades of the longtime “60 Minutes” correspondent’s career on camera to an hour and a half. Presenting Wallace with relatively little mediation is a natural way to tell this story, even as it creates a limitation. Documentary as autobiography, the movie shows a man who is always cultivating his appearance for an audience.
“Mike Wallace Is Here” opens with a clip in which Wallace spars with Bill O’Reilly, who criticizes networks like CBS for being too stodgy, but credits Wallace with being the driving force behind his career. The film argues that Wallace was instrumental in creating a tougher style of interviewing on television (as a counterpoint, Belkin shows softball questioning from Edward R. Murrow), and Wallace’s drive to be taken seriously becomes a recurring thread. We are repeatedly shown how the former commercial actor (and pitchman for Philip Morris) was regarded by some news veterans as a creature of show business rather than as a serious journalist — and how he worked assiduously to dispel that idea.
A roll call of Wallace’s famous interviews could go on for many paragraphs. The highlight reel might include his 1957 discussion on “The Mike Wallace Interview” with the gangster Mickey Cohen, who asserted that he had “killed no men that in the first place didn’t deserve killing.” In 1979, Wallace asked the Ayatollah Khomeini about President Anwar Sadat of Egypt’s assessment of him as a “lunatic.” We hear about the potential chilling effect of a libel lawsuit against CBS that Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who commanded the United States forces in Vietnam, eventually dropped; and of Wallace’s interview with the Brown & Williamson whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand that the network stalled on airing.
Interviews with more peripheral figures often serve to turn a mirror on Wallace. We see how he was able to move the “queen of mean” Leona Helmsley to tears by probing her on the death of a son, an experience that Wallace shared. Wallace’s interview with the former Eisenhower assistant cabinet member Thomas P. Pike is used to bolster a strand on his own struggles with depression. Wallace is also shown in friendly sit-downs with several of his “60 Minutes” colleagues, with whom he sometimes seems less guarded.
Belkin allows most of the clips to speak for themselves, at least visually; almost everyone shown is recognizable on sight, although there are identifications in the closing credits for viewers who want them. There are times when you wish Belkin wouldn’t cut away so quickly and would allow answers to tough questions (or Wallace’s own words) to play in full. The musical scoring — the Chromatics’ widely used composition “Tick of the Clock” alludes to the opening of “60 Minutes” and provides an insistent, paranoia-inducing backbeat — has the effect of providing goosing where none is needed. This isn’t a thriller; Wallace’s life offers enough drama, self- and otherwise.
Mike Wallace Is Here
Rated PG-13. Language unfit to air. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
Mike Wallace Is Here
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