If one were to sculpt a Mt. Rushmore of pioneering broadcast journalists, it would be impossible not to find a spot for Mike Wallace.
From Wallace’s early days on the groundbreaking “Nightbeat” interview program in the 1950s and of course through his legendary, 40-year tenure at “60 Minutes,” he was one of the most compelling and evocative and influential figures the medium has ever known.
And as we see time and again in the terrific and insightful documentary “Mike Wallace Is Here,” the man could be irascible, controversial, intrusive and confrontational — even when conducting relative “softball” interviews with showbiz personalities.
“You are a son of a bitch, do you know that?” says Barbra Streisand to Wallace. “Do you know that?”
Director Avi Belkin relies exclusively on archival footage, behind-the-scenes clips and old interviews (including a few occasions when Wallace is the one on the hot seat) to tell the story. There are no new interviews, no narrator voice-overs offering any kind of comparison between Wallace’s career and the current state of television journalism. (Wallace died in 2012 at the age of 93.)
This is a time capsule — an expertly crafted time capsule — of an astonishing career.
The “60 Minutes” Mike Wallace, firmly established as a serious and world-renowned journalist, would bristle at the mere mention of his nascent radio and television career, which included hosting quiz shows, doing a little acting and pitching a variety of products.
“This BALONEY about a show business background,” Wallace says dismissively to Lesley Stahl.
Except it wasn’t baloney, as evidenced by the clips of Wallace hawking products such as Golden Fluffo Shortening, Ajax cleaner and Parliament cigarettes.
“Hello, I’m Mike Wallace with real news, news about Revlon’s new Lanolite Lipstick …” Wallace says in one spot.
But Wallace also made his mark in the late 1950s with the late-night programs “Nightbeat” and “The Mike Wallace Interview,” featuring in-depth conversations with public figures, and in the early and mid-1960s with TV documentary programs.
When Wallace joined the revered CBS news division as an original correspondent for “60 Minutes,” in 1968, his checkered TV career raised more than a few eyebrows among the old guard.
As Wallace tells Chicago’s late great John Callaway, “They were less than cordial. … I was tainted. I was not greeted with great enthusiasm.”
Any doubts about Wallace’s chops were erased as he started racking up the scoops and scoring exclusive, newsmaking interviews.
In the meantime, Wallace was (in his own words) an absentee father who eventually married four times.
He was also coping with deep depression, in an era when there was far less open discussion and understanding of the illness as there is today.
Wallace tells Morley Safer: “I had no idea what it was when it hit me. … You don’t want to eat, you find it difficult to sleep … [you have] feelings of [being a] fraud. … When you don’t sleep, hour after hour, night after night, day after day, when you are obsessed with what a fourth-rate individual you are, you contemplate anything to get out of it.”
Of all the clips featuring Wallace in action, perhaps the most memorable is a sequence from the 87-year-old Wallace’s interview with a smirking Vladimir Putin, who dismisses Wallace’s query as to whether journalists in Russia “have to bow the head and bend the knee to Putin,” and says (through an interpreter), “Russia is a democracy beyond any doubt.”
Wallace, to Putin: “Your English is very, very good, isn’t it? You understand every word I’m saying. You don’t need the translation. What would you like to say to the American people?”
Putin, in English: “All the best, to every family in America.”
This is why “Mike Wallace Is Here” didn’t require any fresh interviews or voice-of-God narration.
The record speaks for itself.