Documentary Review: “Mike Wallace is Here”

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For decades, four words invoking his name so inspired fear in the hearts of public figures that they became a cultural punchline.

“Mike Wallace is Here.”

The famous and the infamous were said to dread the thought of defending themselves, on camera, to the vaunted, veteran TV interrogator. His dogged insistence on asking those questions others avoided, not generally without tact — he always threw in a  “Forgive me!” after the bluntest queries — became Mike Wallace’s reputation, his legend.

Sure, it’s an exaggeration, which is the best reason to open “Mike Wallace is Here,” Avi Belkin’s documentary celebration of Wallace in the words of Wallace himself and colleagues and interview subjects who occasionally turned the questions around on him, with a sampling of his combative chat with disgraced Fox News host Bill O’Reilly.

O’Reilly professes to admire and emulate the aged Wallace (he stayed on TV for most of his 93 years on Earth), “the driving force behind my career” that to his “gotcha” and “don’t let him off the hook style.” Wallace, in that clipped bark of a voice that never failed him, has his producer play O’Reilly a sampling of O’Reilly’s shout-down style of “interview,” and corrects him.

“That’s not an interview, that’s a lecture!”

Maybe he was, as O’Reilly insisted, “a dinosaur.” But Wallace endured in a business that sheds most of its stars long before they’re ready to leave the stage, used his clout to achieve some of the biggest “gets” in TV history (Ayatollah Khomeini, Putin, Bette Davis) and became as big a celebrity as anyone he ever interviewed.

The proof of that is this film, more an editing job than a directing one, which is built around many interviews the notorious Wallace sat down for with his own colleagues — Lesley Stahl, Morley Safer and others.

Television talker Dick Cavett in the ’70s hosted the man whose name had already come to “strike fear in the hearts of brave men.”

We see Bette Davis, as tough as they come, called “difficult” to her face. We see Barbra Streisand comically bristle at being called “impossible,” and hear his equally prickly, more accomplished journalist co-star Safer ask Wallace the ultimate Wallace-style question.

“Why are you sometimes such a prick?”

Myron Leon Wallace, a Massachusetts son of Russian-American Jewish immigrants (“Wallik” was the family name, which Belkin and generations of Wallace interviews don’t bring up), graduated from the University of Michigan at the post-World War II peak of radio, and got into announcing and acting on that medium. He jumped straight into the newly-born medium that fast-displaced radio.

But he didn’t arrive as an interviewer. He was a voice-over announcer, a game show host, talk show producer, actor and TV pitchman.

And when the chance presented itself, he recognized a gaping hole in the TV interviews of the ’50s, even when they were conducted by the great Edward R. Murrow. “Softball” questions were the order of the day. He would be “nosy” “and insistent.”

He’d ask hard questions. His first series to attempt this style was “Night Beat,” a bracing slap in the face of puff piece profiles of the 1950s. Blunt “unrehearsed” interviews with klansmen, political figures (Eleanor Roosevelt), great artists and others.

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Wallace, as the wrinkles piled upon wrinkles and he became the eminence grise of the medium, would hold later interviewers Oprah Winfrey, Larry King and others to the standards that became his reputation.

“People say you’re a patsy,” he snipped to Larry King.

He’d take people aback, make not-really-famous people, the accused and convicted by TV footage caught in a “gotcha,” cry, and shrug it off with “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.”

We get a peek at the person behind the persona, the father who lost a son, Peter, who died touring Greece in the 1960s, the four-times married “married to my job” workaholic.

And we sample decades upon decades of interviews, from America’s most celebrated playwright, Arthur Miller, to a then-young self-promoting New York real estate heir who achieved his greatest fame after Wallace died in 2012.

“Mike Wallace is Here” is too celebratory to be a genuine dissection of his legacy, the awful stumbles at “60 Minutes” merely touched on (sued by General William Westmoreland, hanging Big Tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand out to dry, the embarrassing sports profiles that were the ultimate puff pieces on later-caught cheaters like Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods and (fawningly interviewed by Wallace himself) Roger Clemens.

His “gotchas” were widely criticized for coming down hardest on the relatively powerless.

But Lester’s film underscores how few TV talkers today have the stature, much less the spine, to ask questions that people don’t want asked, much less be required to answer. Wallace might have been a “dinosaur” at a TV show that has become known, in its latter years, for becoming a virtual TV interviewer museum. The door is open for somebody else to step into those shoes, even if most of today’s imitators limit themselves to barely trying them on.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, some violent images, language and smoking.

Cast: Mike Wallace, Bette Davis, Lesley Stahl, Morley Safer, Oprah Winfrey, Salvador Dali, Arthur Miller, Barbara Walters, Jeffrey Wigand

Credits: Directed by Avi Belkin.  A Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:31

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