Arts and Lifestyle Wednesday Presented by The Exit Room of Lee's Summit-Journalistic Gusto to the Max
There are suddenly a spate of documentaries flooding the market, including two I have reviewed recently here at dannyclinkscale.com, “Echo in the Canyon” and “Pavarotti”. More musical bios soon to come include films on Linda Ronstadt, David Crosby, and Robbie Robertson. From the trailers these appear to be very personal in nature. Between high-profile features like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman” ,and these, you might just be musiced out.
If you looking for something very different on multiple levels, there is the new documentary “Mike Wallace Is Here”. A “60 Minutes” correspondent for over forty years, his withering interview style made him as famous as any major news anchor. Wallace was a paralyzingly driven professional, who sacrificed his personal life relentlessly. That’s why it’s perhaps fitting that this documentary, directed by Israeli film maker Avi Belkin, is almost entirely about his career, and not really about him.
Wallace provides two sentences about his parents. That’s all we get. He was raised in Brookline, Massachusetts and had a bad case of acne. That’s it for the childhood. We don’t find out if, or where, he went to college (he went to the University of Michigan). We know he had four wives, and we hear virtually nothing about any, only hearing his last wife’s name Mary in a very important sequence. We see him hit one tennis shot, never see him socialize, or go about New York City, where he lived his entire adult life.
This is not, at all, a criticism, it is just an approach. Belkin was given access to 1,400 hours of footage by CBS news, and with so much riveting stuff there you almost had to decide in one of two directions. We DO find revealing things I never knew about his career, however. Starting in radio due to his feeling that nobody would ever want to see “that face” he soon moved over to the embryonic medium of television, and did everything but… journalism.
We see him doing dramatic acting, and given the style he would take to reporting, it’s not surprising that he is pretty damn good. He was a commercial pitch man, and he was excellent at that. But given what he was selling, like cigarettes, perfume, and, yes, “Golden Fluffo” shortening, it’s impossible not to be amused.
The film is almost entirely interviews that Wallace conducted, or interviews conducted with him by the likes of Barbara Walters, Leslie Stahl, Morley Safer and others. Wallace bristles at Stahl’s offhand statement that he was an entertainer who moved into news. He did not consider the commercial and acting work he did to be slumming, instead just how you established yourself in the first days of television.
Still, he did want something more substantive and he got it when he started out the New York City local CBS show “Night Beat” in late 1956. It was a, unique for the time, hard-hitting interview program, and it was an instant success, so much so that it only took eight months before ABC picked it up and called it “The Mike Wallace Interview”. It was highly successful and highly controversial. There were lawsuits and guest cancellations, and despite its high profile, critical acceptance and high ratings, it ended after three seasons.
Wallace wanted to work, and was willing to return to pitchman and entertainment to do it. But he wearied fast and the personal tragedy of finding his oldest son dead following a hiking accident in Greece in 1962 also affected him greatly.
He eventually would be hired at CBS, which didn’t seem a good fit. The network was the gold standard for news, and its roster of talent was chock full of some of the greatest names in the history of reporting from Eric Sevareid to Walter Cronkite to Edward R. Murrow and on and on. They were a traditional and erudite bunch with regal journalistic backgrounds, and would be expected to look a bit askance at someone who wasn’t far removed from shilling product.
It was a difficult fit until Wallace found a kindred spirit in producer Don Hewitt, who was out of the mainstream, and somewhat of a scrapper like Wallace. Eventually they would be part of hatching “60 Minutes” in 1968. The show took a while to find an audience, and a voice, but soon one its trademarks would be the aggressive reporting and interviewing of Wallace. Kind of trading off “gotcha” investigative stories and personality profiles, Wallace’s star rose along with the show.
The laundry list of newsmakers and celebrities he would spar with included those we see in the film like Eleanor Roosevelt, Vladmir Putin, Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Nixon, Malcolm X, Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump, Anwar Sadat, Bette Davis, Johnny Carson, Arthur Miller, Ayotollah Khomeini, Barbra Streisand, and others.
His dangerous decision to go to Iran and speak with Khomeini is one of the highlights of the documentary, and one of his best pieces of work. Maneuvering through demands to see all questions beforehand, and prodding the Ayatollah to say he wanted to bring down Anwar Sadat as a traitor to Islam, makes the subsequent assassination of Sadat seem like his handiwork.
The interviews and investigative reporting are edited in a rat-a-tat style with frequent use of split screen. There are many revealing outtakes, and the film flies along in that fashion, much like the marauding Wallace. The documentary is light on nuance, but so was its subject professionally.
Perhaps the best aspect, among many, is the use of Wallace’s interview subject’s answers as revealing points about the man himself, be it military hero Thomas Pike speaking openly about grave depression, or playwright Arthur Miller’s explaining his desire to work as long as he could, and pondering greatly Wallace’s question about what his epitaph would be. This repeatedly leads into Wallace personal attitudes about such issues. The most revealing personal narrative in the film is his discussions in interviews about his own battle with depression, with multiple interviewers asking him if he pondered suicide. He admitted that, but denied for years ever actually trying to, until finally fessing up to his colleague Safer.
There is a tremendous amount to unpack in this overall fine documentary. As noted at the outset this is far more about the work of Mike Wallace than his personal story. But from Barbra Streisand calling him a son-of-a-bitch on camera, to Safer asking him why he such a prick, to Bette Davis explaining her tough reputation, to Watergate conspirator John Ehrlichman sweating visibly on camera as Wallace unloads a “question” at him, it is fascinating stuff.
Perhaps someone will someday take a more personal look at Mike Wallace, but in many ways, his public persona was him. He even makes reference at one point to basically creating a professional personality. He took journalism to a different place, and some said he took it too far. At the outset, an exchange with Bill O’Reilly ends with O’Reilly saying that his own career was patterned after Wallace, the last thing Wallace wanted to hear.
I think the word that best comes to mind is a bit of an old fashioned one…gusto. Wallace had plenty of it, for better and worse, and so does this film.