“MIKE WALLACE IS HERE”: Hard questions

A still from Mike Wallace Is Here by Avi Belkin, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by CBS News

“MIKE WALLACE IS HERE” My rating: B (Opens Aug. 16 at the Glenwood Arts) 90 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
Published August 15, 2019 by Robert W. Butler at Butler’s Cinema Scene

Mike Wallace was the take-no-bullshit TV newsman who asked the questions that made his subjects — and sometimes his audience — squirm in discomfort.

Early in “Mike Wallace Is Here” we see some old studio footage of Wallace being “interviewed’ by his “60  Minutes” colleague Morley Safer.

“Mike,” Safer asks, “why are you such a prick?”

Questioned about his borderline brutal methodology, Wallace would say he was motivated by a search for the truth.

But as Avi Belkin’s documentary makes painfully clear, much of Wallace’s bulldog style was born of insecurity, of a sense of unworthiness.

Indeed, the first 20 or so minutes are crammed with cringeworthy examples of the things an acne-ravaged young Mike Wallace did to survive in the early days of television. He took acting gigs. Even more dubious, given his future calling as a journalist, he was a glib pitchman, a shill, a soulless talking head for products ranging from cigarettes to kitchen gadgets.

Small wonder that during his early years at CBS Wallace’s newsroom colleagues speculated that he was only portraying a journalist.

It’s pretty clear that Wallace was himself hung up on that question.

Belkin lays out Wallace’s career in more or less chronological fashion.  The first big break came with 1956’s  “Night Beat,” a local TV interview program that soon went national.  In the opening episode Wallace told his audience what to expect, explaining: “My role is that of a reporter.”

Some found his interviews more like a police interrogations. Nevertheless, the public responded to Wallace’s “singular brand of browbeating charm.”

Then, in 1969, Wallace got in on the ground floor of CBS’s Sunday night phenomenon “60 Minutes.” His co-workers were something less than welcoming; Wallace’s dubious history of hawking products and his aggressive style put him in stark contrast to the  professorial gentility of Walter Cronkite, the network’s news guru.

But as time passed, Wallace’s ethos became the hallmark of the program, which developed its own mythology of hero reporters and sweating villains.

That success came at a cost.  Wallace went through four marriages and admits that he was a lousy husband and father.  The job meant too much to him.

Late in life (he died in 2011 at age 93) he endured an epic bout of depression that had him contemplating suicide. He dismissed himself as “a fourth-rate individual.”

Maybe. But he was a  fearless and hugely effective interviewer, as demonstrated by snippets from sessions with the likes of Vladimir Putin, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Kirk Douglas, Bette Davis and Johnny Carson.

| Robert W. Butler

Read the original review and more reviews at Butler’s Cinema Scene

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Robert W. Butler for 41 years reviewed films for the Kansas City Star. In May 2011 he was downsized.

He couldn’t take the hint.

OKAY, so here’s the deal. I write mostly about movies. One good thing about no longer writing for the paper is that I’m free to ignore the big dumb Hollywood turkeys that don’t interest me. So don’t expect every blessed release to be written about here. Many films aren’t worth the effort. Besides, at my age it’s not the $8. It’s the two hours.

UPDATE: OCTOBER, 2014: Well, here’s an interesting twist. The Star wants me back as a freelance film reviewer!!! Apparently enough time has passed that they cannot be accused of firing me so that they can rehire me at a fraction of my original pay (I gather the federal government frowns upon that practice.) So from now on I will probably be reviewing a movie a week for the newspaper.